No, this isn’t about Flora, the golden-hearted prostitute who makes the rounds of the trailer parks. In Tucson, when you see a big stand of the tall, thin palms called Washingtonians, you’re probably close to one of the city’s old trailer parks. The slenderest and tallest of the palms are a naturally occurring species in the Sonoran Desert, Washingtonia robusta, which can reach eighty or ninety feet high. A slightly thicker and shorter variety, the California fan palm, Washingtonia filifera, can be found all over Tucson as well, but has less of the slim elegance of robusta, which is sometimes called the Mexican fan palm.
The settled communities that these old trailer parks have become defies the association of transience and impermanence trailers have. There are 430 trailer parks in the county, representing ten percent of the living spaces. Many of them exist because about a quarter of Arizona families spend more than half their income on housing, and trailers are an answer to that huge economic bite. But the culture of the long-established trailer parks is that of an older, more well-off, and economically more stable crowd. They live in trailer parks, yes, but ones that have become settled communities, rivaling neighborhoods of pre-WWII houses, and adorned with some of the oldest and most magnificent tall palms to be found in the city. Some of the people in these parks may still be winter residents only, but a lot of them clearly decided a long time ago that this was the place to be year-round.
Not as visible as the palms from a distance but usually bordering these parks, equally aged and impressive, are the Burbank prickly pears that massively hedge and enclose them. At the beginning of the twentieth century Luther Burbank hybridized two Mexican varieties of prickly pear to produce these cacti. Burbank was looking for a cactus that could feed cattle, and found it. But in this part of Arizona people saw these heavy, substantial, thornless cacti as good substitutes for hedges and fences. Occasionally a property owner would back up a line of Burbanks with a simple post-and-rail fence. But with or without the fence, the arrangement required little maintenance and the plants needed no water beyond the sparse desert rainfall.
Tall palm and giant prickly-pear trailer parks are not everywhere in Tucson, but there are enough to be familiar landmarks in the cityscape. Another kind of flora, less conspicuous from a distance but equally old, marks a separate group of trailer parks.
I suppose the palm and cactus plantings were appealing to those ready to embrace the move to the southwest from wherever they came. But a park with more greenery might have appealed to people not ready for a clean break with the grass and shrubs of the states they left behind. And there are parks in Tucson where the plants, though as old as the cactus and palms in other parks, offered more shade and verdant prospects. Typical of the latter is a trailer park on Limberlost Drive called Vista del Norte—and it does indeed have a splendid view of the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north. This park is bordered with the tallest oleanders I’ve ever seen. I think they may be twenty feet tall, and they challenge the overhead phone and electrical wires in places. Twenty feet is the maximum height for oleanders, according to the scientific literature.
These are white-flowering oleanders. Red and pink ones are popular elsewhere in town, but almost all the old ones I see are white. Nerium oleander is so widely cultivated that no one knows in what part of the world it originated, but it was probably somewhere in south Asia. Like the palm and cacti, oleander is also drought-resistant, though it needs some watering beyond the local rainfall, and it is not easily swept away in gully-washers when the rains do come. When it grows to these sizes it is virtually opaque to prying eyes and thus functions well as a boundary hedge.
Possibly the only disadvantage of the plant is that all of its part are toxic to people and some animals. A fanciful etymology has its name deriving from the Greek ολλυω ανδρα, “I kill man.”
Vista del Norte also has some very large eucalyptus trees. This is the Australian coolibah, the tree under which the swagman camped in “Waltzing Matilda.” Eucalyptus microtheca has been a very popular import in southern Arizona because it grows fast and resists heat. The tree is dense enough to be useful for shade and as a windbreak, like the oleander.
Surrounded by palm and cactus or by oleander and eucalyptus, the folks in these trailer parks have been living there long enough to qualify as real desert rats—a term of affection around here. Children and grandchildren have been born and have grown up while these plantings around them also matured. Now the palms, oleander and eucalyptus are tall enough to be landmarks and as elegant in their way as the landscaping in much richer neighborhoods.