Friday, May 16, 2008

Trees Gone Bad

Today while walking past Santa Monica's City Hall, I passed a group of protesters against the removal of some 23 ficus trees from downtown along 2nd and 4th Streets.

All I can say is - there's nothing worse than a tree gone wrong.

When I lived in the Pacific Northwest, although my second house dated from the 1900's, the lot was treeless. A photo of the property from the '30's showed two huge shade trees on the parking strip - vanished without a trace by the time we moved in.

We decided to plant some trees on the property, but I wanted to be sure I chose the right tree. So I bought a book called "Trees of Seattle" by Arthur Jacobson. This book catalogued every single kind of tree growing within the city limits of Seattle, described their appearances and growth habits, and recommended use and planting. Wonderful, but with a delightfully obsessive wackiness, Jacobson also provided photos and notes on where a particularly interesting specimen could be seen. Thus, I spent a lot of time in my car looking for "the vacant lot facing the parking lot at the corner of Jackson and 27th East."

Well, one of the things Jacobson deplores is planting the wrong tree in the wrong place. Hollywood junipers planted 2 feet from the house beside the front door will become entry-engulfing monsters in 20 years. He has no qualms about removing a tree that's overstayed its welcome, or that was a poor choice in the first place.

Case in point? The ficus trees in downtown Santa Monica. Perhaps 50 years old, with trunks more than a foot in diameter, they grow close enough to the curb that over the years passing buses have damaged their bark, breaking overhanging branches, and opening scars for decay. Their heaving roots have bulged the concrete sidewalks, causing costly repair and maintenance, and exposing the city to liability from "trip and fall" accidents. Their overhanging hefty evergreen foliage has - in some merchants' eyes - thrown gloom and dark over storefront signage.

The city identified 23 of the worst trees, and decided to remove them, replacing them with gingko trees - a choice Arthur Jacobson would no doubt approve.

Since this is Santa Monica, it goes without saying that the ficus trees have their passionate supporters. In 2006, the city's plan to rid the park of an overpopulation of squirrels roused activists in opposition. To save the ficus trees, a group called Treesavers has bombarded the courts and City Hall with injunctions and protests over the past several months. The trees are beautiful, they say; citizens over the years have carved memorabilia in the bark; the trees' foliage scrubs the air of pollutants. And why destroy a living tree? Treesavers vowed to chain themselves to the trees to prevent their destruction.

Tree supporters can be passionate about even the most thuggish of street trees, sometimes ignoring the cost to home owners or public agencies. A Seattle friend's water and sewer lines were destroyed by the roots of English Laurels in front of his 1920's era bungalow. While the trenches opened up my friend's lawn, a neighbor stopped by to berate him for the destruction of those "beautiful trees." English Laurels?? That's like championing bindweed!

Yesterday morning I drove east on Wilshire past 2nd, which was barricaded off. Masses of leafy branches were piled in the middle of the street. The trees' doom had been sealed.
Beaten but unbowed, the Treesavers struggle on. One battle is lost, but the war rages on. The city has targeted some 300 aging carob trees for removal and replacement.

I know some of you will disagree, but I'm with City Hall - and Arthur Jacobson - on this one.
There's no good reason to keep a tree gone bad.

Now, about those Hollywood junipers in front of City Hall......


Threeundertwo said...

You hit on one of my favorite gripes. I have a neighbor with a couple of Modesto Ash trees that tower over our yard. They don't belong on the hill where we live, have been sick the last 12 years we've been here, and drop a ton of sickly leaves and debris every Spring.

If I could wave a magic wand, I'd eradicate every eucalyptus tree in North America. Kerosene on a stick, and messy to boot. They evolved to burn easily and especially here in hot California, they are a hazard we don't need.

Finally, I have no problem with condemning Monterey pines that are in the wrong place. Ugly, top-heavy, and with a shallow root base, to plant them near your house is to set up a time bomb.

Ironically, I think some people would categorize me as a "tree-hugger." But really, it all depends on which trees we're talking about.

SUEB0B said...

Yeah, Ficus retusa nitida is one of the worst ideas for a street tree ever. The white bark and shiny leaves are so attractive, but ficuses are known for their shallow, bumpy roots - huge duh to plant them next to sidewalks.

I think every street tree should be a productive fruit tree. Messy, yes, but I KNOW ppl would pick the fruit and eat it.

Tootsie Farklepants said...

I agree with you. We have some trees (not sure what species) lining one of the main streets in our city. They've obviously been there for a few decades and it is impossible to walk on the sidewalks because of all the cement lifted from the enormous root growth.

They did remove some of them and many were vocal about it.

Anonymous said...

I do agree with you, wholeheartedly. Though I'll note that Ginkgos, while the right height and shape for sidewalks, make an AWFUL MESS when they set and drop fruit. There are a load of them near my house, and the mess of sticky seedy glop on the sidewalk (and consequent stains) is really something. Though I think they gold they turn in the fall makes up for it all. : )

Dan said...

It is true that Ficus nitida trees block out 100% of the light and if allowed to grow too much can make for a very dark and gloomy sidewalk. Where I live they prune them by cutting out the entire middle of the tree leaving only a dough nut shaped ring that lets light through in the middle. Ginkgos are much more noble. Check this link for the most amazing Ginkgo avenue in the world...
Gingko Avenue, Tokyo, Japan