On the northeastern edge of Old Town Goleta, just before San Jose Creek dives beneath Hollister Avenue and starts its concrete march along Highway 217, the parking lots and car dealerships give way to a snaggle of shrubbery. Amid poison and scrub oak, lizards lounge, birds tweet, and the occasional hobos drink in peace, their empty 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor littering the leafy ground. Rising nearly 10 stories above it all, and spreading its girth almost as wide, is the largest California sycamore tree ever measured anywhere on the planet, a behemoth known as the Sister Witness Tree.
Located behind fencing on city-owned but not-yet-public property that’s being planned for a new Old Town park, the tree was officially recognized as a National Champion Tree last week by American Forests. The nonprofit conservation group maintains the National Register of Big Trees by using a formula that combines a tree’s height with trunk width and average canopy spread. Sister Witness, which is named after the landmarked Witness Tree in the Sizzler lot across the street (itself the namesake of the original Witness cut down in the 1800s), is 94 feet tall and 52.2 feet around and has a canopy of 95.5 feet, giving it a chart-topping score of 743.
“We knew it was big,” said Ken Knight, who’s been observing the tree for a decade and recently led a Goleta Valley Beautiful project with Bill Spiewak and Randy Baldwin to remove two palm trees that had taken root in its trunk. “But the spikes on the Canary Island palms were so big that you couldn’t get close enough to the tree.” Their removal and the measurement was step one in a long process to preserve and protect the tree. “We want to make sure that tree stays in good shape,” said Knight. “That’s a lot of work.”
But being a super sycamore is bound to attract onlookers, so Knight is proceeding with caution. “You can kill a tree with kindness,” he said, noting that lots of people trampling around it could compact the soil. “This is a tree that’s been growing there for hundreds of years. It’s sensitive. It’s like an old person. It gets cranky when people mishandle it.”
Though its exact age is unknown, Knight says it predates European colonization, which gives it biological value because many native sycamores have since hybridized with introduced varieties. So Goleta Valley Beautiful has also been cloning the tree for the past few years and planting its offspring around town as part of restoration efforts. Knight hopes to start leading walking tours one day through Old Town, as the Australian willow in the Goleta Valley Community Center’s patio is also a National Champion and there are many century-old trees located at the Pacifica Suites, the former home of Joseph Sexton’s nursery. Said Knight, “There are some remarkable specimens of trees in Old Town Goleta.”