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

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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