By David Gress
The Indian Laurel Fig makes a grand statement – and has a strikingly large presence along many of our major thoroughfares. City Arborists once thought it to be an almost-perfect tree for use on streets and in parks. Its densely rounded crown of glossy green leaves and its smooth light-gray bark were attractive. It was expected to stay relatively small (25 feet). When established, it seemed to be almost indestructible. Consequently, in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, it was championed and regularly planted here in Santa Barbara.
However, it has exceeded the expectations of horticulturists – by growing much larger and more vigorously than anticipated – up to a height and spread of 60 feet! While this bountiful growth has resulted in trees with thick canopies – ideal for wide streets like State, Carrillo, and Milpas – it has, unfortunately, also produced massive ground-level roots which quickly outgrew the relatively small (3-foot by 4-foot) planting spaces permitted in most sidewalks. The necessarily high level of regular maintenance required in branch trimming and root pruning makes it a less-than-perfect street tree…
The Indian Laurel Fig, also known as “Glossy Leaf Fig” and “Laurel Fig”, is a member of the fig family, not the laurel family (though its leaves are similar in shape to laurel). Its botanical name is Ficus microcarpa. The genus, “Ficus”, is the Latin name for the edible fig – the specific epithet, “microcarpa”, is also Latin and means “small fruit”.
There are two distinct forms of this species which have been recognized for years by horticulturists and nurserymen; these are often sold as the cultivars ‘nitida’ and ‘retusa’. The ‘nitida’ form has an upright growth habit and will grow very large, while the ‘retusa’ form has somewhat drooping limbs, rounder leaves, and, with slower growth, stays considerably smaller. Given sufficient space, however, both forms can develop into magnificent shade trees.
As its common name would imply, the Indian Laurel Fig is native to the tropical regions of Asia – from India and China to Malaysia, and through the Caroline Islands to Northern Australia. There, it has been used by generations of herbalists for a variety of medicinal treatments. Among Buddhists and Taoists, mature trees are also considered to have spiritual qualities.
Because it is a tropical to subtropical tree, its foliage can be damaged by temperatures below freezing. Despite being endemic to rather hot and humid areas, it does well in our Mediterranean climate. It will require irrigation to get established but seems to grow quite happily on our normal rainfall after that.
In addition to its lovely dense canopy, other outstanding characteristics of the Indian Laurel Fig are its smooth light-gray bark and its shiny green lanceolate leaves (up to 3 inches long and 1½ inches wide). Its thick foliage and large size make excellent habitat for all types of birds. Its fruits are small (1/3-inch diameter) round figs – which are green when young and turn to a dark brown with age. While not eaten by humans, these fruits are eagerly consumed and widely distributed by birds. It is well adapted to urban areas, because of its tolerance to water and air pollutants.
This tree’s negative attributes are notable: its aggressive surface roots are destructive to nearby structures and to hardscapes, particularly sidewalks; and, it is susceptible to bothersome (but not life-threatening) insects, like Cuban laurel thrips (which curl the leaves) and stem scale (which sucks the sap and deposits a sticky substance that creates sooty mold).
The Indian Laurel Fig has been widely planted, as an ornamental tree, in streets, gardens, parks, and containers. In addition, it can be grown as an indoor plant or as a bonsai specimen. Because of its vigorous and dense growth habit, it can bear shearing into various forms; as a result, it has become increasingly popular as a hedge plant – providing boundary privacy for home yards, as well as strong linear design in formal gardens.
In 1957, Indian Laurel Figs were first planted as formal street trees in Santa Barbara by the City Arborist – these still stand on either side of the first block of east Carrillo Street. Between 1960 and 1962, cuttings from these initial trees were used to propagate new ones – which were planted as street trees on the 3100 to 3500 blocks of State Street, on Milpas Street, on Anapamu Street, and on Canon Perdido Street. Many mature trees can also be seen in MacKenzie Park.
Before that time, it was a rather rare tree here. Perhaps the oldest one (though not the largest) in town is a single tree which stands in a home garden at the corner of Constance Avenue and Anacapa Street – it has been designated an official “Specimen Tree” by the City of Santa Barbara.
Tree-of-the-Month articles are sponsored by Santa Barbara Beautiful, whose many missions include the increase of public awareness and appreciation of Santa Barbara’s many outstanding trees and, in a long-time partnership with the City Parks & Recreation Department, the funding and planting of trees along the City’s streets – a project which has resulted in the planting, to date, of more than 12,000 street trees.