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Dear Ficus: Go Fig Yourself
updated: Mar 03, 2012, 9:30 AM

By Billy Goodnick

If I were a mad scientist, I would brew up a virus to kill figs. Not the Newton ones. They're yummy. I wanna decimate, obliterate, devastate, and totally annihilate the members of the Ficus genus that leap tall buildings in a single bound. The ones terrorizing pedestrians with dollops of decomposing fruit and minefields of messed up concrete.

The GOP candidates say they'll protect us from government interference in our lives (unless it's in our underwear), but I say we need more, not fewer, watchdogs. I'm calling for a cabinet position: Secretary of Ficus Eradication. Here's why.

I zoomed into the Chapala and Anapamu parking lot the other morning for a Peet's fix and noticed the stucco walls and windows of a building on Figueroa. This two-story structure is being asphyxiated by a slow moving, metastasizing green tide of creeping fig (Ficus pumila).

Looking north, there it was again, not only mounting the wall it was initially planted against, but, not content with one conquest, slinking across a beam and copping a feel from the backside of the Karpeles Manuscript Library. (Talk about your HTDs - Horticulturally Transmitted Diseases.)

This was strange. What were the odds of two witless property owners making the same stupid mistake, turning their properties into steroid-pumped Chia Pets?

Higher than I imagined, because steps away, just inside the courtyard behind Peet's was another case study in shooting yourself in the foot. I'm especially stunned that the folks at SIMA property management allowed creeping fig anywhere near the beautiful medallions and ornately decorated terracotta molding that tops the walls.

"Could you please scratch my nose?"

Your Miranda Rights

This plant is a plague. It should come with a warning label, an attorney, training in the use of C4 explosives, and a lifetime gift card for psychiatric meds. Any landscape professional who includes this plant in their designs - or sells it at a nursery - and fails to fully disclose creeping fig's exhaustive maintenance needs, threat to property and public safety, and eventual ugliness of this devil spawn should be held personally and financially liable for the damage.

Someone's been hacking this unruly Medusa into submission for decades.

There was a book years ago titled The Secret Life of Plants, arguing that plants, like people, are sentient creatures (they like Mozart; haven't made up their minds about Lil Wayne), and are capable of feeling pain and emotion. And although there was no mention of plants being conniving and duplicitous, creeping fig is all the proof I need.

It's a dainty tidbit in its youth, sporting delicately crinkled leaves and fine stems. It purrs, "Take me home; tie me to your wall." Then puberty rears its ugly head. The leaves quadruple is size and the twigs morph into sinuous baseball bats, like the lovely specimen along the steps to the main post office pictured above.

Tribute to the Flying Spaghetti Monster

After a few years, instead of a low profile, clinging vertical mat, it looks more like a tormented forest in a Tim Burton movie.

Here Comes the Stud

Think creeping fig is creepy? Check out its big cousin, the Indian Laurel Fig (F. retusa, or F. microcarpa). This monster of a tree has been the center of frequent citizen uprisings when the City of SB proposed removing many of them along outer State Street a few years ago.

Green ceiling along E. Anapamu Street

Every time someone floats the idea of removing these big oafs, we hear the same arguments: "They're living things!" (So is Ebola virus.) "They're beautiful." (Actually, I can't think of a more boring green blob, like the trees kids draw on restaurant placemats.)

Yes, they have value in the urban landscape, giving much-needed shade, but at the cost of property damage, slip and trip hazards, unending pruning, and buckled streets. It's unfortunate nobody had a crystal ball when, decades ago, this tree was touted at the perfect street tree throughout SoCal and beyond.

Forward thinking in LA: 1) Plant tree in tiny space, 2) Wait 40 years, 3) Skateboard ramp!

"You can prune it as hard as you want," was considered a selling point. Never mind the aesthetics nightmare you get after hacking it back to Hackensack: It takes taxpayer dollars that no one wants to pay anymore to stay ahead of the inexorable onslaught.

At least Santa Barbara has devoted the resources to modifying some of the planting strips where these trees grow, but after a while, root pruning can lead to instability. Fruit drop only adds to the problem, not only staining the sidewalks along commercial streets, but also attracting flies, vermin and making pavement slippery.

Given the Herculean task of subduing mature fig trees, Santa Barbara's crews and contractors manage to balance safety and beauty. I'd love to say the same for the utility companies who hire anyone with opposable thumbs to rev up a chainsaw and clear their power lines. This ill-conceived imitation of PacMan in Old Town Goleta enraged, then amused me, a few years ago. "Expedience: Thy Name is WTF?"

I'll Make An Exception

Ya gotta love this one in West LA, dubbed Sponge Bob Square Tree when it and I appeared on the public TV sustainable gardening show Growing A Greener World a few years ago. It's an act of love I can forgive, wrought with hand tools by an elderly gentleman and his sons.

I'm not saying there isn't a place for Ficus anywhere in the world. It's a matter of finding the right place for the right plant. Every living thing has their genetic destiny embedded in its DNA. You can have as many interventions with a redwood tree as you'd like, but you'll never talk it into behaving like a daisy bush. Same goes for other plants. Even the venerated Moreton Bay Fig Tree (Ficus marcrophylla) at the Amtrak station is feeling a bit crowded. (We should start a collection to move it away from the freeway.)

Old Morty is a tree with character for days and days, but like most of its relatives, his natural tendency is to send out massive buttressing roots to tap nutrients and water, and stabilize the broad canopy.

I've been searching YouTube for videos about becoming a mad scientist, but I'm turned off by the bubbling beakers and petulant peasants. Guess I'll forward my resume to whoever wins in November and hope they've got an office overlooking the Rose Garden.

For more pics of Ficus in action, click this Flickr link.


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