Once a landscaping staple in suburbs and planned communities, the lush and leafy ficus has become a civic nuisance--its thick roots buckling sidewalks and streets, breaching sewer lines and cracking foundations of homes and businesses.
In recent years, cities have spent millions dealing with the troublesome trees. Some have been creative about it. In Santa Monica, city engineers have experimented with rubber sidewalks that bend with the swollen roots. Most, however, have resorted to chopping down the trees, often in the face of opposition.
In historic downtown Balboa, such opposition has become a legal battle.
A group of tree-loving residents, calling itself the Balboa Arborist Society, has gone to court to keep the city from ripping out 25 ficus, mostly along Main Street. City leaders say the mature shade trees stand in the way of a $2.8-million improvement project, also mostly along Main.
The ficus backers won a temporary court injunction last week, forcing the city to keep its hands off the trees until Sept. 16, when a full court hearing is scheduled.
While all agree that the aging trees are beautiful and add graceful charm to Balboa’s narrow streets, locals are divided on what should be done with them.
“We’re just trying to put a new, fresh face on downtown Balboa,” said Homer Bludau, city manager of Newport Beach, whose borders contain Balboa. “This improvement project has been a major priority that’s now on hold indefinitely.... It’s very difficult to move forward with such uncertainty.”
The city had planned to cut down the mature ficus this weekend. The trees, which form a green canopy, would be replaced with young coral gum trees, slow growers with less aggressive roots. Once freed of the thick ficus roots that run like tentacles along Main, the street would get new walkways, curbs and gutters. “When I think about the ficus, that they might not be there one day, it’s very upsetting to me,” said Linda Grant, president of the group that sued the city. She and her husband, Bud, estimate that they’ve spent $15,000 on the legal fight to spare the ficus.
“If they cut down these trees, I’d never be able to walk down this street again. It would just kill me inside,” said Grant, who recalls climbing and even carving her initials in the trees as a child. “The trees are magical. It’s where fishers sit after a day’s catch, where birds sing and children play. They’re comforting.”
Grant and other tree activists have lobbied City Hall to spare the trees and have sung their own variations on songs, such as “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Ficus Trees,” at City Council meetings. The city commissioned a report on the trees last year, asking staffers to study and create a profile for each ficus, planted in the 1960s. The city even gave them a “special tree” designation for their age, beauty and historic value.
Still, it was decided that the trees had to go.
“We don’t take removing any tree in the city lightly,” Bludau said. “I’m not too surprised by their opposition. The trees are definitely beautiful. But they’re the wrong trees in the wrong place.” Hardy and fast-growing, the nonnative ficus, imported from India and the Mediterranean, have been planted all over Southern California along neighborhood curbs and roadsides since the 1940s.
Their trunks can grow to 30 inches in diameter and their shallow roots, which often break the surface, can spread 20 feet. Cities including Orange, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Cerritos, Hermosa Beach and Glendale have taken the ficus off their favored-tree list.
“It’s difficult to kill a healthy, mature tree that is so tall and magnificent and has been around so long, so it becomes an emotional topic,” said Frank Gibbons, a Cal Poly Pomona horticulturalist. “Good trees grow slower, and it’s hard to see the full potential and beauty of these type of trees in our lifetime. I love ficus myself. But they do become a maintenance problem and safety hazard when they get older.”
Along Main Street, cracks in the sidewalk are apparent around half a dozen ficus, and in the street are patches of asphalt similarly roughened by the roots. Sewer lines and foundations have also been damaged.
The activists prefer that the city prune the roots, install devices to block root growth or remove only the few trees actually causing problems.
“We just don’t want a blanket removal of all the ficus trees,” said Jan Vandersloot, a member of the tree advocates. “Just some balance to keep the ambience.”
Some locals are ambivalent and concede that maybe the trees’ time has passed.
“I don’t care one way or the other,” said Mike, a stylist who has worked at J.J.'s Hair Cutting on Main Street for 28 years. “I think the trees are good for business; it’s unique and charming, but I wouldn’t want the foundation of this building to crack.”