Ficus' Shady Reputation Prompts Change in Scenery


Whether clipped into lollipop shape or allowed to spread thick evergreen canopies, ficus trees have transformed the look of Southern California cities from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. They also have garnered great affection and, more recently, blossoming antagonism.

Hailed as a miracle tree able to thrive under tough urban conditions, two ficus varieties commonly called "Indian laurel fig" were planted in enormous numbers throughout Southern California in the late '50s and early '60s. But the trees grew into troubled maturities with unanticipated harvests of cracked sidewalks, invaded sewer lines, blocked street signs and expensive prunings.

As a result, some neighborhoods and cities now are ripping out Ficus microcarpa nitida and its close cousin, Ficus microcarpa retusa, and replacing them with different species. Many other areas are considering similar changes, stirring debate over how the region should dress itself in greenery.

"It was sold as the tree to plant. But they are an absolutely horrible, horrible street plant," said Ken Ayers, public works director in Gardena, which took out 70 mature Ficus microcarpa from Gardena Boulevard last year and switched to palms.

Brea, Hollywood, San Fernando, Ventura and Glendale, among others, also have removed Indian laurel from some streets. Most cities, at the minimum, have stopped planting new ficus.

The Ficus microcarpa's reversal of fortune again can alter dramatically the appearance of Southern California streetscapes, experts say. Native to Malaysia and India, ficus trees with their light gray bark and lustrous green, pinched-oval leaves now connote California elegance and affluence, partly through their carefully manicured presence in Beverly Hills.

The look of California greenery has changed several times before. Native oaks and sycamores fell to grazing and housing tracts. Previous generations planted massive amounts of other nonnative trees such as palms and eucalyptus.

Still, the many ficus lovers are quick to allege that their removal is horticultural massacre. In Ventura last year, the chopping down of two dozen ficus as part of a Main Street revitalization project sparked petitions, street theater protests and the arrest of one man who chained himself to a doomed tree in front of a thrift shop.

In many cases, ficus are being replaced by palm trees. That trendy switch upsets fans of the dense shade and vibrant green that ficus trees add to otherwise hot and drab boulevards.

"My description of a palm tree is telephone pole with a cowlick," said Victoria Hochberg, a Hollywood neighborhood activist. "It does not provide any shade. It does not provide any feeling of safe harbor. It does not provide a place where you can sit and read, an encompassing space that provides solace and peace."

Because ficus trees provide those qualities, she mourns the removal last year of large ficus during roadwork and redevelopment on Highland Avenue near the Hollywood Bowl and the year before on Hollywood Boulevard.

Seeing such controversy, ficus-lined retail districts such as Highland Park's Figueroa Street and Hancock Park's Larchmont Boulevard, are cautiously debating whether to join the removal trend or make expensive accommodations.

"It's a very common problem all over the state actually," said E. Robert Bichowsky, an arborist based in San Diego.

Fifth Avenue in San Diego's lively Hillcrest area draws its identity as much from its bookstores and movie theaters as from its many 30-foot-tall ficus trees.

However, roots pushed foot-wide gaps in sidewalks. So rather than cut down the 10 most guilty Ficus microcarpas, a $45,000 project is scheduled to start next month to trim roots, insert underground root barriers and install new stone pavers near the trees. A federal community development grant is paying for most of the work.

Experts debate whether such barriers will help and whether root trimming may destabilize trees. Meanwhile, cities worry about rising liability for injuries that pedestrians suffer in falls on buckled sidewalks. And merchants in some areas complain that ficus foliage obscures signs and storefronts, making it difficult to attract shoppers.

Cutbacks in city maintenance budgets worsen the situation. Less frequent top-branch pruning causes roots to grow more aggressively, arborists explain. The city of Los Angeles now trims most trees every 16 years, compared to every six or seven years in better times.

In contrast, Beverly Hills and Glendora give annual haircuts to the many rounded ficus that are signatures of their business districts.

"My analogy is you don't buy a French poodle to have it look like a shaggy mess," said Jim Henderson, Glendora's director of community services.

But even those cities no longer plant Indian laurel in other neighborhoods.

Indian laurels were promoted vigorously during a beautification fervor 35 years ago as a low-maintenance, trouble-free street tree for a hot and dry climate. Where other species failed, they were regarded as a tree that could survive all sorts of vandalism and untutored trimming. Of the many varieties of ficus trees, bushes and houseplants, these two produce massive crowns high above street level. And they are green all year.

"Ficus are very, very hardy trees. They can take the smog and particulate matter and lack of care. They are real tough," said Glendale-based Richard Mayer, who is Southern California chapter president of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

More recently, cities discovered that Indian laurels are one of the few trees that can survive the shade that skyscrapers cast in downtowns, according to Bob Kennedy, chief forester for the city of Los Angeles.

All that is true, but so is the rule of unexpected consequences in the plant world. Eucalyptus can be unstable and oily firebombs at times. Dutch elm disease devastated urban forests in the East.

Humans caused the troubles with ficus by planting in sidewalk parkways that cannot accommodate mature trees, said James Urban, a landscape architect in Annapolis, Md.

"They try to put the wrong piece of biology in the wrong place and create huge maintenance problems," he said. "I hate to say that, but removal may be the answer. But at the same time, I hope we learn something from this lesson."

On Larchmont Boulevard, ficus trees planted in 1959 make the street of boutiques and cafes a popular location for movie makers who want a warm, village-like background. But the ficus break sidewalks and attract annoying thrips bugs. So business leaders are studying root barrier projects like those in San Diego. They also are looking at other trees for gradual replacement of the ficus if those measures don't work.

"It's really a Catch-22 dilemma," said Earle Vaughan, president of the Larchmont Boulevard Assn.

Emotions were inflamed last year when a new Blockbuster Video store on Larchmont had roots of two ficus trimmed, causing the trees to become so unstable that they were later removed. Replacement ficus are on the way, but anger is evident in anti-Blockbuster graffiti on storefront notices of "temporary" tree removal. "How would you like to be temporarily shot to death?" one protester wrote.

Conflicting sentiments are evident on Highland Park's Figueroa, a Latino-flavored shopping district that has had a harder time competing with malls. Some merchants contend that the stands of 20-foot-high ficus, many with bushy tops at store sign level, make matters worse, as do the cracked walk-ways. Some reportedly tried to poison the trees with salt and cut off offending branches in violation of city rules.

The district is now sprucing itself up under Mayor Richard Riordan's Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative. With about $10,000 in funds, a private firm last month trimmed 22 ficus on Figueroa from Avenues 56 to 59 in a more careful and lacy manner than the blunt cuts city crews sometimes perform. Deep-watering pipes also were installed to help direct root growth.

Mazen Mansou, the owner of California Fragrance and Cosmetics Marketing Co., concedes that he had the ficus in front of his store illegally cut last year because branches steered rainwater into his ceilings and because customers complained they could not find the business. The recent trim, he said, makes visibility "better than before, but I prefer a better and smaller tree."

The possibility remains that the ficus will be removed one day, according to Lauren Melendrez, a landscape architect and local Neighborhood Initiative board member. "This was a compromise," she said, stressing that many residents are devoted to the ficus. "We want to see if it is really possible to keep the trees and make them work."

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