They were doing the line dance when what sounded like firecrackers split the air.
Because the sound was to be expected at a Chinese lantern festival, no one immediately noticed the demise of a fig tree that for 144 years had watched skyscrapers built around it and a freeway carved out beside it; that saw the changing fashions and hairstyles of the people beneath it; that sheltered a growing number of homeless people from rain and sun.
It wasn’t the sound of firecrackers. It was the sound of a tree dying.
“We saw the lanterns attached to the tree start to go,” said Teena Apeles, whose daughter’s troupe was waiting to perform at the March 2 festival. “We knew something was wrong.”
The tree seemed to fall in slow motion, the swoop of its descent dramatized by the red paper lanterns strung from its branches, Apeles said.
And with that, the four Moreton Bay figs that have towered for more than 140 years over the cradle of Los Angeles were three.
Since 1875, the trees had formed a kind of compass circling El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the brick plaza where the city was founded.
Slumped on its side, the downed tree “looked like a dinosaur,” said Chris Espinosa, general manager of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. “It was so depressing.”
Espinosa said he had consulted with arborists about the health of the trees but that their prognoses were made during the drought and were focused on keeping the trees healthy when water was scarce. The recent deluge has posed a different set of problems, he said.
A city arborist inspected the trees this week and found the surviving ones in good shape, Espinosa said.
The four figs were planted at El Pueblo by agriculturalist and City Councilman Elijah Hook Workman, KCET reported in 2013. The Ficus macrophylla was brought from Australia to Southern California in the 1860s and 1870s, probably to provide shade and ornamentation, said Donald Hodel, a horticulture advisor for the University of California’s Cooperative Extension.
At the time, the citrus industry was taking off, the region was being flooded with new trees, and railroad companies were marketing Southern California as a botanical wonderland where anything and everything could be grown, said Frank McDonough, a botanist with Los Angeles County.
“Having a big ol’ Moreton Bay fig in the middle of downtown Los Angeles illustrated that quite nicely,” McDonough said.
Hodel described the Moreton Bay fig as a commanding breed of tree with an enveloping canopy that threw plenty of shade.
His reasons for admiring the Moreton Bay fig: “Their grandeur; their size — they have an imposing habit; their root structure is incredible; the spreading nature of their branches.”
Hodel said he last saw the El Pueblo figs about six years ago.
“I wasn’t too impressed by their health or their size, considering they’re 140-something years old,” he said.
The trees become unhealthy when the ground beneath their canopy is covered with concrete, preventing fallen leaves from decomposing and enriching the soil, Hodel and McDonough said.
“In a well-maintained landscape — what I call ‘benign neglect,’ where you give a tree some water, let the leaves fall and leave them where they lay — I imagine it could live 200 years or more,” Hodel said.
Today, there is barely a stump where the fig stood for 144 years at the southern point of El Pueblo’s plaza. The tree was cut up with chain saws and hauled away with a crane.
Dave McMenamin, who leads tours of the pueblo as president of the Las Angelitas del Pueblo, said it felt “like losing an old friend.”
Espinosa, El Pueblo’s general manager, said they were fielding ideas for its replacement. Some have suggested a native tree, like an oak. Others have proposed native plants such as the evergreen currant, the island snapdragon, hummingbird sage and creeping snowberry, Espinosa said. He called the medley “a very strong suggestion.”
“I still feel kind of bad when I go past it,” a man who gave his name only as “Joe” said of the stump. He has lived at the plaza for 25 years. “I mean, it took 150 years to get there, and to go like that ...”
Then he shrugged. “But it’s like anything else around here. It’s a tree. A tree is a tree is a tree.”