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GARDEN OF ED

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.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 261490 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-03 10:24 AM

Billy,

I'm a fan of our "urban forest" and I've noticed a trend toward removing the larger street trees and replacing them with much smaller, less stately varieties. Large trees with big canopies really separates us from more boring and stark landscapes of other towns. What would Anapumu look like without the Stone Pines, or San Andeas with no Magnolias? Isn't some damage to streets and sidewalks worth the beauty these tree bring? I'm not claiming ficus are our best street tree, but I'd like to hear your list of acceptable trees.

 

 COMMENT 261495 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-03 11:00 AM

Billy has written some interesting columns but he tends to think too much of his opinion.

 

 COMMENT 261501 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-03 11:22 AM

Billy, love your sense of humor! I really thought the creeping fig was so unique and beautiful when it covered the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, but didn't realize the destruction it was doing to the stucco. I don't think most of us are aware of the potential hazards to property when planting the fig.

I think it's a great vine to plant when trying to hide an ugly cement wall or maybe even a chain link fence. It certainly would cover up "ugly" and be appropriate in certain circumstances.......or would it?

Thanks for educating us and helping us consider what a plant or tree is going to look like 5 or 10 years down the road.

Thanks for another informative and good humored article!

 

 BECKY agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-03 11:47 AM

I had no idea we had a shrine to the Flying Spaghetti Monster in town, but, having seen the photo, it is now so obvious. Thank you so much for pointing me towards this landmark. But since it's on a government building, it raises questions about separation of church and state.

I gotta admit, even though I should loathe it, I secretly admire the creeping fig making her "Mother Nature *always* wins..." statement as she reclaims ugly blank concrete walls by smothering them. Her tree cousins shout, "Take THAT, you puny concrete sidewalk! My roots will show you who's the boss."

[Think 15-50 years out?! What heresy!]

 

 COMMENT 261513 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-03 11:52 AM

awesome pics! i think they are beautiful + luscious. go to the midwest and see how un beautiful and un luscious it is without foliage. i love seeing green living things, the more the better. plus more green things = better air quality! watch out billy, now that you have gone public with your fig hate, those smart conniving ficus may be masterminding a way to find a potion to eradicate you too, lol!! ;)

 

 COMMENT 261517 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-03 12:28 PM

Good thing you're not a mad scientist then. I love these trees.

 

 MTNDRIVER agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-03 12:31 PM

Used to have creeping fig planted on a 20-foot long west-facing white stucco courtyard wall to cut the afternoon sun glare, but oh what a mistake. Finally took it out after about 15 years, when it was 18 inches thick and so woody, raising roof tiles on the house, covering a beautiful four-foot wide sandstone boulder, actually growing through the house roof into our bedroom. There was a truckload of foliage! Painted the wall a nice warm tan color (why didn't we think of that originally?) no more glare, no more rat habitat. Still after ten years it tries to come back.

But alimentary fig trees, now that's a different story altogether. Delicious fresh figs, trees easy to prune and keep relatively small, the leaves are lovely, branch structure too when they go dormant in winter.

 

 COMMENT 261530 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-03 02:22 PM

I love fig trees. Why on earth would someone who loves plants even jokingly want to kill any of them?

 

 COMMENT 261579 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-03 07:05 PM

Careful, Mr. G. - - a Strangler Fig is fomenting a conspiracy against you.
We in the North State identified F. pumila growing all over an ugly North-facing concrete wall at the back of our house. It's still in the tiny-leafed stage, and we patrol the thing, nipper in hand, on a regular basis to keep it off a window, out from under wood siding, up/away from planting bed. How long before it turns into FSM???

 

 COMMENT 261716 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-04 06:24 PM

I like the topic of landscape quite a lot, but BG's style is all about him. As in narcissism overriding all other aspects. I love humor, but too much humor flattens the concept. He seems overly impressed with himself. Just relax BG.

 

 COMMENT 261759P agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-05 08:26 AM

Billy is right. Just because something is green, doesn't make it the Right Plant for the Right Place. He is merely pointing out the obvious.

These huge Ficus trees are in the wrong place. Look at the sidewalks. What's worse is the the drain placed upon the city's maintenance budget by regular preventative pruning, in order to keep broken branches from killing people. When those fully loaded branches fall (design flaw, sorry God) they liquify whatever is below, car, human, building. And fall they do.

While it's nice to pretend that Ficus are just 'evergreen' Midwestern ash or elm, they aren't. They don't belong in a narrow downtown corridor any more than do redwoods or pines.

We humans tend to sentimentalize nature because we are so far removed from it these days. But such thinking can cause harm, even kill.

 

 COMMENT 261938 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-05 06:33 PM

Still waiting to hear your list of acceptable street trees Billy.

 

 BILLY GOODNICK agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-06 09:52 AM

Dearest and most insistent anonymous critic 261938. (Wish you had a name so I could address you politely, but that's not usually how these comments appear.)

You ask for my list of acceptable street trees. There are so many criteria for finding the right tree for the right place that such a list will never exist. Depends on soil type, size of the planting area, microclimate conditions, need for vehicle clearance, whether there will be supplemental irrigation or if the tree has to go strictly Darwin. There's a great reference book that was compiled by the Street Tree Seminar, Inc. titled "Street Trees Recommended for Southern California". It was published in 1994 and the contact number is 714.911.1900.

The book classifies each of 100-or-so listings based on site suitability (Sunset zone, parkway width, proximity to utility lines, cultural considerations, susceptibility to disease and insects, seacoast tolerance/shade, brittleness).

Then add in the aesthetic -- the character of the setting and how trees can help enhance it. I agree that we have some majestic street tree setting like the "cathedral" of stone pines on Anapamu, but those need to remain the exception due to the extreme impact they have on infrastructure and forestry maintenance.

So, you see, there is no simple answer. My point in this article is that either due to ignorance about how the tree behaves, or just plain wishful thinking, people who are responsible for these decisions have to look past the "oooh, pretty flowers" mentality and take an emotionless approach to what is often a decision with long-lasting, dangerous, expensive ramifications.

You want a list. When it comes to intelligent, sustainable landscaping, there are no simple answers.

As for comment 261495 ("Billy has written some interesting columns but he tends to think too much of his opinion"), thank you for that endorsement. It has long been my goal to be recognized as the worlds greatest authority on my opinion.

To the rest of you folks leaving kind, enlightened comments, thanks for "getting" it. ... [ more ]

 

 COMMENT 262246 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-03-06 04:56 PM

Thanks for responding Billy, though my number is 261490. Yes, I am skeptical of the trend toward using small shrub like trees as replacements for larger types.

I did indeed ask for a list of trees and the answer to my question was simpler than you imply in your response. I agree there are several factors to consider, but I was hoping to hear at least your ideas on trees which would replace the ficus trees your were talking about (mostly on Milpas and Upper State).

I enjoy reading your contributions even if I don't agree with everything you say. Sorry if you found my question offensive. Everyone can't "get it" all the time.

 

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