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The Moreton Bay fig, 100 years old and still giving

September 18, 2009 |  8:34 am

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Mortonbayfig 288The stately Moreton Bay fig on the 1300 block of Carroll Avenue in the Angeleno Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles holds its own among the historic Victorians that line the street. The tree, right, is an original planting from the turn of the 20th century, when ladies strolled with parasols and the horse and buggy were the order of the day. Today, its magnificent canopy offers shade on hot summer days, and its bodacious roots are large enough to sit on. The tree, Ficus macrophylla, originally from Australia, grows to about 75 feet tall by 150 feet wide.

A while back, the Home section wrote about a Santa Monica street, above, where the lovely canopy of Moreton Bay figs turned out to be a happy accident -- one that ultimately became a link among neighbors. In case you missed it, we've posted the story after the jump.

-- Barbara Thornburg

Photo credits, from top: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times; Barbara Thornburg / Los Angeles Times

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From the Home section July 28, 2005:

A colossal but happy mistake

Moreton Bay figs were never meant for a Santa Monica street: They're the wrong tree in the wrong climate. But with help, they've thrived.

By Janet Eastman, Times Staff Writer

The trees loom five stories over the quiet residential street, their thick, interlocking branches forming a sweeping canopy over handsome, custom houses, their trunk bases as wide as SUVs and their tangled surface roots as thick as fire hoses.

So unexpected and exotic that they attract horticultural tourists, the Moreton Bay fig trees (Ficus macrophylla) of La Mesa Drive in Santa Monica are a triumph of urban adaptation. They were planted under the mistaken assumption they were magnolias. All 112 along the seven-block stretch, as well as two cousins, the rustyleaf figs (Ficus rubiginosa), are natives of a rain-forest climate. But they have found a way to thrive, under the watchful eye of homeowners.

"The funny thing is they should never have been planted here," says Walt Warriner, Santa Monica's community forester and public landscape superintendent. "They don't have enough room or water, so they've had to create their own microclimate."

"This is the only residential street in the city that's lined with these types of trees," says Peter Nelson, who has owned a home on La Mesa for 30 years. "They are extraordinary in their visual impact. They are majestic and divine, and have made this street a God-given place made by man's mistake."

 When the young trees were planted during the 1920s, they were thought to be better-behaving magnolias, which have similar-looking leaves. The trees were even identified as magnolias in 1936 blueprints by acclaimed architect Paul Williams, who designed a Georgian house on the street.

"I don't know if it was an afterthought or just serendipity that they are Moreton Bay figs and not magnolias," says homeowner Patti O'Neill, who has lived in the Williams-designed house for 18 years. "I don't care. I'm just grateful that they're here. It's just like art -- sometimes it's a happy mistake."

MoretonFig2Happenstance has been a part of the Moreton Bay fig tree's strange history in Southern California. In 1875, the trees were shipped to San Pedro and given to anyone who came to the dock, according to newspaper reports kept by the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum. The saplings were scattered around the arid chaparral, and despite their craving for water and territory, some flourished.

One was planted in 1875 on grounds now occupied by St. John's Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. Today its canopy envelops the church, office building and lawn and extends to the middle of National Boulevard. The largest Moreton Bay fig in the state was planted in 1877 on the corner of Chapala and Montecito streets in Santa Barbara.

In 1889, Santa Monica city founder John P. Jones planted one on his estate. Now the Fairmont Miramar Hotel staffers enjoy telling visitors that the limbed landmark was smuggled off a ship by an Australian sailor who then surrendered it to pay off his bar bill. The bartender gave the tree to Jones' wife.

Sticking a tree into the ground without knowing what it would do was a grand experiment, says forester Warriner. He points to early photographs of the area that show grassy plains with a sprinkling of sycamores, oaks, toyons and citrus trees. "They needed trees that could beautify the city, but they didn't have the scientific knowledge of what would work," he says.

What they didn't know then was that the Moreton Bay fig tree is a member of the pushy ficus family. Its branches can stretch to 50, 100, 150 feet or more. The roots burrow down 4 feet into the ground, causing, as one La Mesa Drive homeowner said, "death to plumbing" pipes. Weighty branches support themselves by sending tangled strands to the ground, which become solid crutches over time.

"They have a broader spread than almost any tree we can grow here," says George Gonzalez, Los Angeles' chief forester, who crosses city lines to show the La Mesa Drive trees off to horticultural bigwigs. "A Moreton Bay fig is one of the most beautiful trees growing in Southern California. It impresses even jaded tree guys."

Fifteen years ago, however, these beauties were hurting. Peter Nelson and his wife, Rissy, saw withering branches, anemic leaves and a bleak future.

"We figured out the trees were weak and under stress, and we couldn't let the street go bald. The trees are the street," says Peter, who lives in a grand Mediterranean-style house. "They give it identity. Some of the trees looked as if they were dying."

Some were, confirmed a UCLA environmental horticulturist whom the neighbors brought in to investigate.

The trees were dying of thirst, kept parched by water-hogging groundcover. Their roots had been damaged over the years by utility companies digging to make room for pipes and cables. Their branches had been "hacked off," according to Peter. "Stumps were left with no regard to the shape of the trees, future foliage growth or the canopy of the street," he says. Their trunks were shoehorned into confined spaces, stunted to align with curbs, driveways and sidewalks.

"These majestic beings were entombed in concrete," he says. Adds Rissy: "They are quite valiant. We have a chaparral climate and they are rain-forest trees and here they are. I speak to them occasionally, remind them to 'keep punching.' They are real to me, like friends."

In 1994, neighbors started receiving upbeat, diplomatic missives from the Nelsons about the need for deep-water soaking. "Would you please advise your gardeners about the watering project and ask them to leave all soaker hoses in place?" The grass-roots effort also included pleas for financial support: "The [labor and rental equipment] cost to each resident for watering is $44." For $100 a tree, an arborist was hired to give the fig trees a boost of nitrogen fertilizer, iron chelate and agricultural gypsum.

"Peter and Rissy Nelson are the type of residents that urban foresters love," says Warriner, who says these Moretons have been appraised at $1.7 million.

When the couple asked the city for help, Warriner was just starting his job overseeing thousands of city trees. "The trees have really been mistreated throughout their lives," says Warriner. "But this is a testament to the resilience of this species. Others would have died."

He did his research and came up with guidelines for the trees' care, which he shares with homeowners, gardeners, architects and anyone with access to the trees. Now, for example, contractors who used to unintentionally crush the roots by driving over them have to maneuver around protective orange fencing that is wrapped around the trunks at construction sites.

In 1997, the city agreed to pay for the supervision, labor and equipment to revitalize the trees. Every five years, the trees are pruned. Homeowners can trim those in front of their houses if they get permits and hire licensed, insured contractors who adhere to the city's requirements.

"This street would be entirely different if we didn't have the trees," says Jean Schaffner, who moved to her Spanish-style house on La Mesa in 1965 and has never considered moving. "Why would you leave? These trees connect us as neighbors."

Photo credits: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times

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