Milan divided over palms in Piazza del Duomo

Milan palm trees cause furious arguments on social media.

Pollution, corruption, immigration, the economic crisis – nothing seems to have caused as much discussion and division among milanesi in recent days as a few dozen palm trees.

The city is split into opposing camps over a plantation of palms, to be followed soon by banana trees, currently being planted on the west side of the city’s Piazza del Duomo.

Comments on social media have ranged from ironic to outraged, often illustrated with satirical photo-montages of camels or minarets on the city’s beloved cathedral, while a decidedly smaller group of supporters has had difficulty making their voices heard. Many complained that the exotic choice doesn’t sit well with the gothic masterpiece on the opposite side of the square.

During the early hours of 19 February, unidentified vandals even tried (unsuccessfully) to set three of the palms afire.

Angela V., who came from her home near Via Lorenteggio to see what all the fuss was about, was resigned. “Now they’ve done it without asking us milanesi,” she told Wanted in Milan. “But they’ll see in a few months when they start to droop and pine that it wasn’t a very good choice, given our climate.”

A poll of over 5,000 readers by La Repubblica daily newspaper showed 60 per cent against the initiative and 37 per cent in favour, with only 3 per cent undecided.

The exotic plantation is a gift to the city by the US-based Starbucks chain of coffee shops, sponsoring its plan to open scores of outlets this year in Italy, the first to be inaugurated by June in neighbouring Piazza Cordusio.

“The evergreen trees will lend an exotic touch to the square,” said councillor Pierfrancesco Maran, announcing the initiative when the chain won the competition for the sponsored greening of the piazza.

Maran pointed out that the installation, approved by the Soprintendenza, was designed by Milanese architect Marco Bay, who had also authored the museum area of the Hangar Bicocca and the green areas of the Deutsche Bank in Bicocca and the Serenissima in Via Turati. And the plants – a special type of tree which can resist temperatures of up to -8°C – are being provided by a nursery in Como.

Other politicians were less enthusiastic. Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, noted for his anti-immigration views, said that all that was missing now were monkeys and camels, while art critic and former Milan councillor Vittorio Sgarbi said the initiative was “idiotic”, adding that palm trees were suited “for Palermo and further south, in Africa”.

The argument has even penetrated the council chamber of city hall, where opposition councillors waved giant inflatable bananas in protest.

Milan mayor Beppe Sala, defending the plantation, said it followed the city’s 19th-century tradition, and proudly added that the city was “daring”. Lombardy regional governor Roberto Maroni was more diplomatic: “It’s a decision by city hall which I don’t share, but which I respect.”

Starbucks has promised to install an automatic irrigation plant and to maintain the plantation for three years in return for plaques identifying the sponsor. Meanwhile the plants provided by previous sponsor Konica Minolta – 24 hornbeams and nine clerodendrum bushes – are being transplanted by Starbucks to new locations chosen by city hall in Via Salomone, Parco Galli, Via Gonin and Via Giordani.