Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Where the Palm Meets the Pine

Madera County, California
February 27, 2010

If you travel along Highway 99 in the San Joaquin Valley of California, you may notice an odd couple squeezed into the median of this heavily-traveled road. A pine tree and palm tree stand above the line of cars which travel between Fresno and Madera. Each tree appears to be the only friend to the other, and this friendship has kept this pair together where otherwise they may have been long gone.

No one really knows how the palm and pine originally got here. Madera County historian Bill Coate believes the trees were there before the construction of Highway 99, being part of the improvements of the Leyh family's store and rental cabins, but Mr. Coate could not find any documentation on this story.[1] Locals with deep family roots in this area have also handed down this story from generation to generation. Bob Thomason from the local district of CalTrans, the California Department of Transportation, went through their files, documents, and images, dating all the way back to the beginning of the highway, and did not find even a brief mention of the trees.[2] Some say the trees were planted by agricultural students from Fresno Normal School (now California State University Fresno) in 1915 and Highway 99 was built around the trees. Alas, nothing in the printed record to document this tale. As Mr. Coate and Mr. Thomason and countless others have learned, there is an abysmal lack of information on the birth of the palm and the pine.

The generally acceptable chronicle of the beginning is that this pair was purposely planted here when Highway 99 was being paved and widened in the 1920's. On its way from Mexico to Canada, Highway 99 was the main north-south route through the entire length of California in those days, and the palm and the pine came to represent the midpoint of the state and the dividing line, at least on Highway 99, between the northern and southern halves of California. I will leave it to the reader to figure out which tree represents the north and which tree the south.

Lacking official plans and approvals and probably the necessary surveying equipment, the planters of these trees nevertheless came pretty close to pinpointing on Highway 99 the midline between the northern and southern borders of California. The northern border of California next to Oregon is at around 42 degrees 00 minutes latitude. The southernmost point of the southern border, where California, Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean come together, is at around 32 degrees 32 minutes latitude. Doing it the simple way, you arrive at a midpoint latitude of 37 degrees 16 minutes. Where the palm meets the pine is three miles south of the city of Madera at around 36 degrees 54 minutes latitude.[3] So the planters were off by around 22 minutes of latitude - a crow hanging out at the palm and the pine would have to fly north around 25 miles to get to the midline of California. Well, when you use miles instead of minutes, maybe it isn't that close for a crow.

It has also been said that the palm and the pine represented the midpoint of the highway in California when the trees were planted in the 1920s. Highway 99 was then a segment of United States Route 99 which was the main route of travel in the United States between Mexico and Canada for several decades. US Route 99 ran the entire length of California from Calexico to north of Yreka.[4] The highway was approximately 890 miles in length with its midpoint at around 445 miles.[5] Disappointingly this midpoint is in Fresno near Ashlan Avenue, and the palm and the pine are 11 miles away to the north. 

The palm and the pine are located between the latitudinal midline of California and the midpoint of US Route 99 in California. I guess this location just south of Avenue 11 in Madera County was the right spot at the right time for the folks that had this idea and planted the trees.

Except when a passerby traveling along Highway 99 noticed this unlikely pair of trees or when folks were trying to figure out the geographic center of California, no one paid much attention to the palm and the pine.[6][7][8] Not until CalTrans figured out a better use of the median where the trees resided. CalTrans in the 1980's was looking at making improvements to this segment of Highway 99 and that included widening the highway to bring it up to their standards and specifications. The original construction plans for these improvements said goodbye to the palm and the pine. They were just trees that got in the way of concrete and progress.

The community soon raised a roar about this insensitive juggernaut of progress and told tales of the trees. But these were just tales, and there was no evidence, no documentation, no tangible proof of their past being historic or even relevant to today. It looked like the uncaring government agency would remove the trees, and the stories of their past would soon be forgotten. However, employees within the officialdom of CalTrans, led by Bob Thomason, started to talk about this interesting pair of trees and soon common sense started to take hold. Designs and plans were figured out that could save the trees, and common sense finally reached high enough in the CalTrans bureaucracy decision tree: the highway, as it did in the past, would have to go around the palm and the pine.
February 2010
Since this monumental decision, CalTrans has adopted these trees as their own and the future of the trees looks safe. The pine tree originally planted with the palm tree is no longer there. Although it was able to fend off CalTrans, the pine tree could not keep Mother Nature from imposing its will. The tree fell down in a storm in late 2005, but within a couple of years CalTrans planted a new pine tree to keep company with the palm.

Before I leave this story, the identity of the trees should be revealed as they both have come a long way to get to Madera County. The pine tree is actually only a relative of the pine. It is a Deodor Cedar (Cedrus deodora) which is native to the western Himalaya Mountains. Because it is desirable as an ornamental tree, the Deodor Cedar has spread across the world and is found in many parks and public spaces in California.[9] The palm tree is not native to California and is the Canary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis). This palm is native to the Canary Islands in the western Atlantic Ocean and is also desirable as an ornamental tree.[10] Although these trees are not native to California, I welcome them as worthy additions to California and as appealing decorations to the harsh and unending pavement of Highway 99.

Madera City Logo

Where the Palm Meets the Pine
A landmark along Highway 99, the palm and pine trees 
mark the center of California—the pine representing the 
beautiful landscape of Northern California and the palm 
representing the sunshine of Southern California.

Highway 99 Task Force 
Route 99 Corridor Improvement Guide
Modesto, California:  Great Valley Center, December 2004

View Larger Map


[1]  I could not find the citation for the source of this reference, but I swear I saw it when I originally wrote about the palm and the pine in 2010. Let this be a lesson on citing and dating reference sources as you find them on the ever-changing worldwide web.

[2] Bob Thomason, CalTrans, District 6 as seen on California's Gold, Episode 608 - Center of California, Huell Howser Productions, 1999.

[3] The trees are about a quarter mile south of Avenue 11 in Madera County. The latitude and longitude coordinates of their location are 36.904368, -120.000806. Plug those numbers in any mapping website, and you should be taken to the palm and the pine.

[4] United States Route 99 was part of the United States Numbered Highway System from 1926 until the 1960s when Interstate 5 was completed. I-5 in many places replaced US Route 99, but for those parts of US Route 99 that remained, those highways became part of the California's state highway system. The segment of US Route 99 that remained between I-5 in Kern County and Red Bluff became State Route 99.

[5] US Route 99 started in Calexico at the international border with Mexico, snaked its way around the western shore of the Salton Sea and through the Inland Empire to downtown Los Angeles. It then turned north and roughly followed the current alignment of Interstate 5 to Kern County where Highway 99 now diverges. US Route 99 from Kern County to Sacramento generally followed the current alignment of State Route 99, then split into an eastern branch and a western branch. The eastern branch approximated the current alignment of State Route 99 to Red Bluff. The western branch went to Davis, then north to Woodland and then on to Red Bluff. I-5 replaced the western branch from Woodland to  Red Bluff and the reconnected branches of US Route 99 from Red Bluff to the Oregon state line. Of course back in those days, US Route 99 went through the many towns and cities rather than around them.

[6] I first spotted the palm and the pine in 1986 traveling in the backseat from Fresno to Santa Cruz for a volleyball match. Our driver, acting as a tour guide, brought the trees to our attention and told us the palm tree represented the sunny skies of Southern California and the pine tree represented the cold, rainy weather of Northern California.

[7] The trees were introduced to a television audience in 1999 when the quest of Huell Howser to find the geographical center of California was filmed for Episode 608 of California's Gold. Huell soon learned that the palm and the pine are not California's geographical center and the center is 35 miles to the northeast near North Fork. More information on the geographical center can be found at the North Fork Chamber of Commerce website

[8] The trees may be the chorus of a song written by Danny O'Keefe in his album American Roulette from 1977. The song's title:  In Northern California (Where the Palm Tree Meets the Pine).

[9] Like the trees in the genus Pinus, the Deodor Cedar is an evergreen conifer. Pines and cedars are both in the plant family Pinaceae which is just one step above the genera Pinus and Cedrus.

[10] The only palm native to California is the California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera). Although I have never been a beauty pageant judge, I can confidently say that the Canary Island Date Palm is much prettier than the California Fan Palm.


  1. Thanks for the clarity on location. We look for this as a 'halfway point' between Sac and Bakersfield. Tree on the North is, I believe, a Cedar tree (dedrus deodara). Pines must make a poor median tree. Pines and Cedars are in the Conifer family so the concept is correct for representation of North/South flora.

  2. I lived in Fresno and passed this many many times before I knew what it was. It was cool to find out. Also been to the center of the state up near Redinger lake.

  3. I just finished watching Huell Howser's pbs show about the geographical center of california. I really enjoy watching his shows and i thought this one quite interesting because i have always had an interest in maps since i was a young boy. With the computer technology enabling anyone to find points anywhere on the earth by use of longitude and latitude points, my interest peaked to find exactly on google maps where the geographical center of california. I input the coordinates and found the exact center. Of course it's out in the middle of nowhere, but i found the show absolutely fascinating, as I do of all of Huell's tv shows. I also found your blog upon clicking on other websites concerning the center of california. I found your information quite interesting and very informative. The next time I drive north along Hwy 99, I will definitely be on the lookout for the palm / cedar trees in the median. Thanks again for a very fun read of your blog.

    1. Thank you for your comment! Safe travels on your trip along 99 when you look for "the Palm and the Pine".

  4. I don't know if this helps or not, but my great grandparents were the neighbors to the original owners of the Palm and the Pine, who had planted those trees in their front yard. When the 99 was being built, the state claimed the property by imminent domain and agreed to move their homes back from the future freeway, and after much hassle my great grandfather made them build the Ave 11 overpass since the highway would be splitting up his farming land and force him to drive miles instead of a few hundred feet in order to reach his property. As far as I'm aware, the home sitting about 100 feet away from the two trees (off of the top of my head I think it's a bright blue color) is the original owner of the trees. They just built around the trees when they built the 99.

    1. Thank you for sharing those memories! They now become a part of the story of how those trees got here.

  5. I have a friend who was living in Fresno and dating the manager of the highway widening project. When he mentioned the trees to her and said they would be removed, she wrote a letter to the editor, hoping to save the trees and story of the pine and palm. Not sure how excited he was to find out he unknowingly contributed to having to change the project plans, and have added expenses, to work around the trees.

  6. Interesting comments. I was told by a frien who worked for cal trans that they represent the half way point on highway 99 from Mexico to Oregon