Big Trees Heroes of the Garden

By Virginia Hayes

108-jubaea.jpgYou may not have room for them in your own garden, but life in our city would be significantly different without them. Some tree species can assume heroic proportions and become landmarks that shape the surrounding community. They stand as links from one generation to the next, and sometimes for many generations of citizens.

The most beloved and well-known monumental tree in Santa Barbara is the Moreton Bay Fig tree (Ficus macrophylla) that spreads itself near the train station. This specimen was a gift from a seafaring man to a local youngster in 1876. When she moved away a year later, her nine-year-old friend Adeline Crabb dug it up and transplanted it to its current location. It has grown steadily since then and may be the largest of its kind in California. If its health can be maintained it may eventually rival its brethren in Australia with canopies that can cover more than three acres of ground.

Native sycamores (Platanus racemosa) can also live for many years, growing to 80 feet or more in height and sometimes spreading nearly as wide. The Portola sycamore, documented to be more than 250 years old, is said to be the only remaining tree from a grove sycamores that served as the outdoor workshop of the Chumash who constructed their tomols there. It is growing on property owned by the Carpinteria Sanitary District. There are other old sycamores in the area. Another grand old sycamore shades the courtyard of the Sizzler restaurant in Goleta. It is believed to have been alive at the time of the signing of our constitution and served as the witness tree (corner post in the survey) when the last governor of Mexican-owned California, Pio Pico, made the land grant of Rancho de la Goleta to Daniel Hill in 1846.

Carpinteria is also home to another historic tree. Planted in 1890, the Ward Holm Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana) on Carpinteria Avenue is more than 100 feet in height. Its huge crown provides shade to most of a city block. Other large Torrey pines were planted by Santa Barbara’s first superintendent of parks, A.B. Doremus, in 1910. You can visit them today at the west end of Oak Park. A much-beloved arcade of large Italian stone pines (Pinus pinea) on both sides of Anapamu Street was planted in two major batches. The first ones were planted in 1908 (also Dr. Doremus’s handiwork) and a later planting was installed in 1929 under Ralph Steven’s direction.

Of course, one would imagine that the native trees of the region would be represented by large old specimens. Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) was the dominant tree species during the prehistoric period of the South Coast and was a significant contributor to the diet of native peoples. Grand old oaks do remain in the landscape, but current gardening practices such as summer irrigation and raising the soil level over existing roots, are mostly detrimental to their continued health and many have fallen. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Rocky Nook Park, and, of course, Oak Park are just a few good places to pay them homage.

A good place to find lovely old trees is the grounds of Pacific Suites on Hollister Avenue. This property was once the home of Joseph Sexton. Often called the father of Santa Barbara horticulture, Sexton established a nursery there in 1867, and many exotic trees and shrubs remain from that era. Look for the Chilean wine palm (Jubaea chilensis), for one. This palm grows to 50 feet in height and also has the largest diameter of any palm at more than 3 feet. The cow-itch tree would seem like a less-than-desirable garden choice. It is, however, a lovely evergreen tree that sports pink, bell-shaped flowers in summer.

Stowe Grove Park also boasts some large and lovely trees. One interesting species is the monkey hand tree, Chiranthodendron pentadactylon. These trees stand at about 60 feet in height. Their common name comes from the dark red flowers that are split into five canoe-like bracts with a brighter red five-part stamen (you get the five digit reference). Look for them and their fallen flowers in the northeast corner of the park. The park is also graced with several species of eucalyptus, some that may not be as well-known. Not all eucalyptus are huge and invasive like Eucalyptus camaldulensis and E. globulus. As stately and lovely as these two can be, they have become serious pests in many areas of California.

One of the oldest parks in town is Alameda Plaza, first developed in 1902. These two square blocks serve not only as a great community gathering place and playground, but as a botanical showcase for some of the largest and loveliest trees in the city. Since it was founded so long ago, it too holds some fabulous tree specimens that have reached their ultimate height and beauty. Two species of special note for their grandiose proportions are the Norfolk Island pine, or star pine (Araucaria heterophylla), and the bunya bunya tree (A. bidwillii). These magnificent conifers, both native to the southern hemisphere, can eventually grow to more than 100 feet in height. Their silhouettes rise above some of the oldest neighborhoods throughout the city as well.

Even if you don’t have any dearly beloveds in residence there, the Santa Barbara Cemetery is another great place to see statuesque trees. Mature trees of mourning cypress, Cupressus funebris, are (most fittingly) growing there, and nearby on Channel Drive are sculptural specimens of another cypress, Monterey cypress (C. macrocarpa). Monterey cypress trees can attain heights of 40 feet or more, but it is their sculptural branches that inspire awe in all tree-lovers. Other good tree-spotting locations beside those mentioned above are: Stowe House, Lotusland, Westmont and UCSB campuses, and Franceschi, Orpet, and Stevens parks.

So here’s a salute to our tree heroes. These grand masters have stood through nature’s worst earthquakes, fires, and floods as well as human intrigue and strife. And let’s not forget to plant an acorn now for tomorrow’s children to hug.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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