The robust Indian laurel, a one-time darling of city landscapers, has fallen from favor among Main Street business owners in Santa Paula.
Its slender, white trunks and dark foliage provide a nice canopy for the picturesque street, but its roots tend to buckle sidewalks and its tiny, fig-like fruit that carpets the ground when it falls leaves the Indian laurel with few friends on Main Street.
"They are messy, destructive, overgrown and, in general, highly unsatisfactory street trees," Norman Wilkinson, the city's public works director, recently told the City Council.
The council has authorized spending $21,000 to trim the 140 Indian laurels (a member of the ficus family) that line Main Street and other downtown streets.
"If we only trim them, they could come back to haunt us," said Mayor Alfonso Urias.
"This is just buying time," said Wilkinson, who plans to develop a proposal to make merchants responsible for replacing the ficus trees.
The laurels have thwarted the efforts of Santa Paula's public works department to control the trees' roots and fruit. Barriers have hardly slowed the advance of the tree's roots. The tree is, after all, related to the banyan and Moreton Bay fig, trees known for their massive roots that resemble flying buttresses.
The city once sprayed water on the female trees to knock the fruit down, but the treatment had little effect, Wilkinson said.
Downtown merchants have complained that customers track the crushed fruit into their stores. And when the trees grow tall enough, shopkeepers are dismayed to see their store signs hidden behind the thick canopy.
Once above the height of the storefronts, the trees drop leaves that not only clog rain gutters but decompose and emit an acid that eats away roofing material.
John Nichols, the owner of a Main Street art gallery, said the selection of an alternative tree is a matter that deserves careful scrutiny. "It's not just a tree issue, but a design issue for all downtown," Nichols said.