Column: Laguna Beach barks up the wrong pepper tree


For a city whose DNA instinctively says no, why did Laguna Beach so easily say yes to cloning a dying, dangerous pepper tree?

The City Council is inexplicably spending way too much time and money on a tree. Granted, it serves as the annual Christmas tree and is sentimental to some.

But it’s 135 years old and has “serious” structural defects. Over the years it’s been filled with concrete and foam in order to extend its life.


It’s time to let it go.

Instead, we have costly heroics. The latest is a $13,000 cloning experiment, which the City Council appears willing to endorse.

If this weren’t so troubling, it would be laughable.

To his credit, Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Boyd sounded just as frustrated at the last council meeting, saying the time has finally come to end it.

“We’ve been talking about this tree forever,” he said. “So many arborists and specialists tell us it is a danger. … Let’s move ahead.”

Not so fast.

The city has to study it some more and reward consultants.

With the cloning experiment, crews would cut pieces of the tree, collect seed pods, incubate them and raise saplings — theoretically. Some well-versed critics like Ruben Flores, owner of Laguna Nursery, were not impressed.

“I don’t see a reason to spend that kind of money,” he said. “The person planting that tree should stand behind their planting because they are a reputable company.”

The bottom line is there are so many other more important issues.

We still lack sidewalks in key areas of town. We need bathrooms at more beaches. There are sewers that need substantial and ongoing repair. And let’s not even talk about the power lines that seemingly never go underground.

If the tree is so important, just cut it down and put in a new one.

I would recommend a eucalyptus tree. That’s right. We take our own medicine.

The blight that is eucalyptus seems perfect: pests, shallow roots, a fire hazard. On the bright side, they attract butterflies.

The tree would last for eternity, satisfying our slow-growth nature.

I get that people feel an affinity for iconic trees but a pepper tree is not one of them. They grow like a teenager, gangly and ill-kempt.

If a neighbor plants one in the middle of the night, I would never recommend cutting it down the next night.

They’re just weak trees — airy, spindly and annoying.

Now, a redwood, there’s a tree. A Sequoia. A cedar. A huge wisteria. Go “Game of Thrones” and get a dragon’s blood tree.

Or be really exotic with a baobab tree from Madagascar. That would make a statement. That would redefine Christmas in Laguna.

But we’re cloning a bad pepper tree.

Of course you can’t grow all trees everywhere, but to make trees really sing, you need a grove of them. In Laguna Canyon, for example, we failed to capitalize on the potential to create an indelible tree tunnel leading into town. Instead, we have a sad median with what looks like dried-out twigs.

Imagine a purple canopy of jacarandas. Or a stunning row of gnarled cypress. Or even majestic oaks.

Yeah, no, that’s not going to happen.

Somehow our DNA stops short of majestic.

Why is that? Why can’t we ever go big?

We built Heisler Park, great. Montage was a nice (and painful) project. OK, fine.

But where is our collective innovation over the last 15 or 20 years? Where is the courage and vision to do something stellar? World class? Instagram-worthy awesomeness?

Alas, we’re talking about cloning a pepper tree.


DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at