Curbside Critic: About that overgrown palm tree . . .

PalmtreehouseFirst, I want to defend myself: I am a tree lover, tree hugger, tree planter and tree waterer. Indeed, I'll probably stay on my property until death just to be near the trees I've planted: California pepper, gingko, elm, pine and oak.

But I must say, I don't get this SoCal palm tree obsession, though I know palms have plenty of fans. (Get it?)

Still, what if you had a tree like this taking over your front yard? You can't really trim the thing back. If you trimmed the bottom fronds and left the top fronds, it would look like a big, hairy popsicle. And no matter how nicely you fixed up the house on this lot, it would always be hidden by this monster.

Could you cut this tree down? Would you? Though I don't like palms, I could not, would not chop it down. I even feel passionate about trees I don't like.

And today, there's passion over trees in Santa Monica, where the city wants to remove 54 aging ficus trees to expand the promenade. Of course, there's an uprising with people protesting and threatening a hunger strike, as reported in an L.A. Times article titled "In Santa Monica, there's a fracas over the ficus." The article says:

Ficus trees are a close second to the famed palm as icons of the Southern California streetscape. Cities planted them by the thousands during the 1960s, when arborists say they were known as "wonder trees," with hardy trunks and lush green canopies that required little maintenance.

Now that the ficus are starting to show their age, cities are removing them. Low-hanging branches interfere with bus traffic and overgrown roots crack sidewalks, costing cities thousands of dollars in upkeep, repairs and payouts from pedestrian lawsuits.

So the dilemma is this: When is it OK to cut down trees? Never? Sometimes? Any time?

UPDATE: Court bars removal of Santa Monica trees

Activists protest the city’s plan to uproot 54 trees for expansion of popular promenade.

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

October 5, 2007

Santa Monica activist Jerry Rubin took to the streets again this week, marching not against the war in Iraq, global warming or pollution, but against what he considers a more immediate threat — city plans to remove 54 aging ficus trees.

"We don’t relocate senior citizens from their apartments just to bring in new young families," Rubin said, allowing that the ficus are not people, "but if they were, they’d probably be shouting ‘Don’t relocate us, don’t get rid of us before our time!’ "

Ficus trees are a close second to the famed palm as icons of the Southern California streetscape. Cities planted them by the thousands during the 1960s, when arborists say they were known as "wonder trees," with hardy trunks and lush green canopies that required little maintenance.

Now that the ficus are starting to show their age, cities are removing them. Low-hanging branches interfere with bus traffic and overgrown roots crack sidewalks, costing cities thousands of dollars in upkeep, repairs and payouts from pedestrian lawsuits.

Rubin represents growing local resistance to removing ficus. He and other opponents from City of Commerce to El Segundo and Newport Beach argue the tree’s stylish canopy is a local trademark that sucks up carbon and soot and cools city streets, a valuable asset in an age of global warming.

"I have seen the destruction of so much green," retired Realtor Karen O’Connor, 69, said as she marched past Santa Monica’s ficus trees Wednesday. "It’s just becoming a concrete city."

Santa Monica city planners said the ficus need to be removed as part of an $8-million project to extend the popular Third Street Promenade to 2nd and 4th streets, home to 156 aging ficus. City plans call for relocating 31 of the trees elsewhere in the city and destroying 23 that have become diseased and damaged.

The city plans to replace each ficus with two young ginkgo trees, which city studies show create the "dappled sunlight" shoppers and tourists crave.

Opponents of the plan insist shoppers appreciate the mature ficus.

"These trees remind me of where I grew up," said Santa Monica native Darren Wachler, 38, a massage therapist who lives in Mar Vista and was shopping downtown Wednesday as the protesters marched past.

Wachler said the City Council should reconsider.

"They forgot about the roots of Santa Monica," he said.

Protesters want the city to prove the condemned ficus trees are diseased. They also want more time for public hearings so they can consult with their lawyer about making the trees local landmarks and find an arborist to evaluate the trees. More than 1,600 tree supporters signed a petition organized by business owners on 4th Street.

Rubin has applied for a restraining order to save the 54 ficus trees. He and other protesters threatened to stage a hunger strike, chain themselves to the trunks and hold funerals for any trees removed.

Santa Monica’s arborist, Walt Warriner, said he’s trying to be progressive, to move as many of the ficus trees as he can, even though it costs $3,000 to $7,000 more than destroying them. And Warriner said he won’t remove any trees that appear to be too deeply rooted to survive a move.

Other local arborists said they’re trying to save ficus, weighing their potential to damage sidewalks, water pipes and sewer lines against their environmental and aesthetic benefits.

"They’re all reaching maturity at the same time. For streetscapes and the liability, [cities] are looking at a big decision all at once," said Rose Epperson, executive director of the western chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture based in Porterville, Calif.

Epperson refers to stands of troublemaking middle-aged ficus as "boomer trees."

"Personally, I think the city of Santa Monica goes above and beyond in trying to make things work before they make the hard decisions," she said.

In Newport Beach, where residents have resisted city plans to remove and replace ficus trees downtown, City Manager Homer Bludau said the city has removed several hundred ficus during the last five years, but is trying to preserve the trees where it can, "just because they add so much ambience" to areas such as Clay Street that are known for their canopies.

City of Commerce planned to chop down 1,000 ficus earlier this year before residents intervened, obtaining a court order that required an environmental study. City officials said they were trying to save money on sidewalk repairs and protect pedestrians who could trip on cracked sidewalks and sue the city. But after 51 ficus were cut down, citizen complaints led the city to relent and only remove sick or severely damaged ficus.

George Gonzalez, Los Angeles’ chief forester, said ficus shouldn’t be labeled a problem tree since many other street trees crack sidewalks and outgrow their plots. Although the city isn’t planting more ficus as part of its Million Trees L.A. project, and has removed some of the city’s 30,000 ficus, Gonzalez said he works where he can to instead prune the trees, and enlarge their root space and surrounding sidewalk.

"We’re not trying to preserve the tree at all costs, but we’re also saying don’t just remove the tree if it will cause damage," Gonzalez said. "Because if you do, you will not have trees in Los Angeles or Santa Monica."

Santa Monica ficus supporters plan to hold a meeting today at 6 p.m. in front of City Hall. For more information, visit or call (310) 399-1000.

6 Comments on Curbside Critic: About that overgrown palm tree . . .

  1. wonderama

    I think the ficus wouldn’t be such an issue if we had wider sidewalks, gave the trees a bit of space to grow. Instead we put them in tiny squares of space and expect them to stay confined.
    At least Santa Monica actually nutures their trees unlike cutting them to ridiculous stumps like they do in Monterey Park where I live.

  2. sheila

    I agree with Hoover — that tree will be a 12″ trunk in a few years, with a beautiful swaying, full top above roofline. it looks incredibly healthy and happy there!! as for the overall effect, it is not my yard, but i would probably make significant changes to the exterior of the house and to the landscape to accommodate this gorgeous specimen and make the entire thing into a tropicalia paradise, but hey, that’s just me.
    as for the ficus, i enjoy the shady canopy indeed, but they are FULL of mealybugs — i mean COVERED in them, which means the gardens in their vicinity are constantly infested with these incredibly difficult and deadly pests. they also rip up the sidewalks and drop large red (sticky, staining) berries onto cars, sidewalks, yards, etc. i wonder if a gradual process of replacement would work? replacing one or two trees on a block each year with a young, healthy tree, perhaps of a more street-friendly variety? personally, i love the gingko, although i haven’t lived with one enough to know it’s shortcomings…
    oh, and not to state the obvious, but it is GROSSLY inappropriate to destroy shade trees to extend a MALL. bleah! i just despair over the last 10 years of Santa Monica’s incredibly disgusting “all growth at any cost” policy. faced with massive demand, did the City insist on “carbon neutral” and “zero impact” building designs? nope. nothing of the kind. there are HUNDREDS of revolting, cheapo (but incredibly expensive) McMansion-y “townhomes” blighting and crowding the city now, not to mention over-priced, hideous “creative office space.” traffic, parking, smog, dust and crowding have all become terrible and quality of life has dropped precipitously. and now they want more “mall” and fewer trees? PLEASE, BRING BACK THE COMMIES!!!

  3. jbjbts

    We are 99% done with an addition built off our detached garage that includes a new bathroom. That required a new sewer line and installing it required removing a pepper tree. I would have kept the tree if it was possible but litterally the choice was tree or bathroom. So I will cut down trees when there is justification.
    The project also required working around a huge silver maple in the backyard. The footprint of the addition and the pumbling was designed to minimize disruption to the tree. I probably paid a bit more because of that- we had to dig longer trenches for the sewer, water and gas lines due to the need to aovid the tree’s roots.

  4. Hoover

    That palm tree, once it gets a little taller and clears the roof of the house, will no longer be an obstacle. It’s a beauty. The homeowner could probably sell it as it is to a palm broker for at least $10K or so–it would be a shame to cut it down.
    Just as a side note, ‘California’ pepper, Schinus molle, is not a California native at all–it’s from South America.

  5. BAM

    I would cut that palm tree in the lede down straightaway. There’s plenty of trees that might be better suited for that location: western redbud, a scrub oak, or quaking aspen to name only three that come to mind.
    With respect to the previous poster’s comments on established trees in Santa Monica: What makes you think that the blue gum eucalyptus (a bad idea at its inception in 1870 which reached its nadir in the 1920s and 30s) or a ficus (a 1950’s idea also gone horribly wrong) are so worthy of protection? A bad idea is always a bad idea.
    Is every established tree so majestic that it can’t be removed to make way for a better tree?* Comparably majesty and beauty, fewer problems, and greater wildlife benefit could be found with a sycamore tree after only a few short years of growth.
    Do you have such a small vision of the future that you are unwilling to wait a couple years for something that will pay you back for the next 100?

    * two ginko trees for each removed ficus seems like a great trade to me, looking only a couple years down the road.

  6. Jodi Summers

    It seems like the City never learns. If you looks on you’ll realize that Santa Monica went through a similar tree crisis in the 1930s.
    Many of our sensational trees were planted in the 1920s by Hugh Evans, a well-known Santa Monica Horticulturist in the early part of the 20th century. He was the proprietor of Evans Rare Plant Garden in Santa Monica and was well regarded in the field of tree care. Mr. Evans spoke at the first annual Western Shade Tree conference, held in 1934 at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica.
    At the 1934 conference, Mr. Evans was critical of the fact that large old trees were being removed even then and emphasized the importance of retaining old growth trees. He further elaborated on the value of the Eucalyptus tree in the landscape, and discussed the advantages and limitations of new ornamental varieties then starting to be imported from Western Australia.
    The conference was held in large part due to the efforts of Ed Scanlon, the City Forrester for the City of Santa Monica and Mayor William H. Carter, a supporter of City tree planting programs, who gave the opening address. The Western Shade Tree Conference eventually evolved into the western chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). The ISA is considered to be the premier organization in the field of Arboriculture.
    Perhaps it’s time we hold another conference and figure out the best way to save our beautiful trees.
    City planning should not include destroying healthy trees.
    Jodi Summers
    Sotheby’s International Realty
    Time ripens all things. No man is born wise. —Miguel de Cervantes