Majestic Mammoths: A Brief History of L.A.'s Moreton Bay Fig Trees | KCET
Majestic Mammoths: A Brief History of L.A.'s Moreton Bay Fig Trees
It lacks the native charm of the sycamore or oak. It wants for the palm's exotic appearance. It doesn't have the pepper tree's romantic associations with California's mission past. It never enjoyed, unlike the eucalyptus, the passionate advocacy of a forester like Abbot Kinney. But the fig tree -- and specifically the majestic Moreton Bay fig, whose branches can spread more than 100 feet and send down aerial roots that harden into buttresses -- has become a cherished part of Southern California's arboreal heritage.
When an ad-hoc group named the Exceptional Trees of Los Angeles Committee surveyed L.A. County in the 1980s, their report identified 13 individual Moreton Bay fig specimens as exceptional -- far more than any other species or cultivar. The city of Los Angeles recognizes three separate plantings of Moreton Bay figs as historic-cultural monuments, and local communities have been quick to rally when development threatens the trees.
Known in botanical circles as Ficus macrophylla, the Moreton Bay fig is a member of scientific group of trees that includes the common fig, the Indian banyan, and the Indian rubber tree. F. macrophylla's sweet, globular fruits are an important source of food for animals in the subtropical rainforests of Australia's eastern coast, where the tree originates.
By the 1870s it had arrived in Southern California, shipped across the long breadth of the Pacific as seeds or saplings. In 1875, Elijah Hook Workman planted a quartet of them around the Los Angeles Plaza as part of an early civic beautification program. More than thirteen decades later, Workman's trees still shade the historic plaza today.
Another early planting took place in the tiny town of Orange, when the area was still part of Los Angeles County. Henri F. Gardner planted the Moreton Bay fig in front of his house on March 6, 1875 to celebrate the birth of his first son. That tree, grown to massive proportions, also survives today, its broad canopy stretching out over Glassell Street.
The tree's arrival followed a wave of importations from Australia: the plume albizia, several species of acacia, and -- most ostentatiously -- the eucalyptus. Early gardeners might have prized the Moreton Bay fig -- known then as a rubber tree -- for its leafy appearance and its reputation as a fast-growing tree. Since it had never been tried in Southern California's semiarid climate, however, the first planters might have been unaware that it would so easily take mammoth form.
The tree also played a role in the region's creation of a new botanical identity, meant to reinforce booster visions of Southern California's exceptional climate and natural setting. The language and symbolism are confused and sometimes contradictory, but trees such as the banana and palm resounded with descriptions of the region as a sub-tropical paradise or as an oasis surrounded by desert. Most importantly, tree plantings made the semiarid landscape more familiar for newcomers accustomed to the temperate climate of the Eastern United States. The Moreton Bay fig -- whose leaves resemble those of the magnolia found in the subtropical southeast-- served double duty, appearing vaguely exotic yet reassuringly familiar.
By the end of the nineteenth century, many of the outstanding specimens we celebrate today had taken root.
The spreading Moreton Bay fig on the grounds of St. John's Church in West Los Angeles was among the region's first, planted in 1875. The city designated it Historic-Cultural Monument number 19 in 1963.
The Crabb family planted Santa Barbara's famous Moreton Bay fig in 1877. In 1944, measurements put the tree's branch spread at 144 feet, prompting claims that the specimen was the world's largest. It was said that 9,500 people could stand underneath its canopy. Freeway construction along Highway 101 threatened the tree in the late 1950s, but, bowing to the concerns of the local community, highway planners rerouted the freeway around the beloved tree.
In the 1890s, Susan Bixby planted the two fig trees on the grounds of Rancho Los Alamitos in present-day Long Beach. Those trees guard the historic ranch house to this day.
Many of Southern California's exceptional Moreton Bay figs survive as remnants of past land uses, still shading the same ground even as houses become commercial buildings and exposed earth becomes hardscape.
The massive Moreton Bay fig at the parking entrance to the Automobile Club of Southern California's headquarters, for example, was planted by Charles C. Chapman outside his Figueroa Street residence in 1894. It was already a mature tree when the Auto Club purchased the site in 1921 and built its headquarters around the tree.
"Though there is no documentary proof of the tree's origins, that matters less than the meaning that has attached to it over the generations," said historian Matthew Roth of the Auto Club Archives. "Auto Club people like to view it as a symbol of durability and rootedness, qualities that they also apply to their organization."
The Auto Club hosted a 100th birthday party for the tree in 1994.
The two spreading giants near the University of Southern California's student union building are also likely remnants of an earlier time when much of the campus was a residential neighborhood. Like the Auto Club, the university honors its trees. Today, USC faculty, staff, students, and visitors dine under the trees' shade at the university's Moreton Fig restaurant.
Another remnant tree grows in Pasadena. In 1880, Thomas Early planted a Moreton Bay fig in front of his Marengo Avenue residence. Early's house is gone, but the tree still spreads over the grounds of the Pasadena Convention Center.
Santa Monica town founder John P. Jones planted a Moreton Bay fig on his Ocean Avenue estate in 1879. More than a century later, the tree shades the porch of the ritzy Miramar Hotel, whose staff share a story -- likely apocryphal -- about an Australian sailor smuggling the sapling off his ship and trading the young tree to settle his bar tab.
Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.