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Ficus Trees: Good for Shade or Just Trouble?

An Anaheim, Calif. fire chief surveys an Indian laurel fig (Ficus microcarpa) more than 50 feet tall that toppled onto a vehicle during gusty winds on April 18. A rescue team used an air chisel to extricate the driver, who was seriously injured in the incident.
Photo: O.C. Register

Ficus trees are related to the common fig, with species like Ficus benjamina and Ficus microcarpa valued for dependable growth and shade. The trees,Omega Copy however, are notorious for damaging sidewalks, hardscapes and planters with their aggressive roots.

Newspaper accounts from Florida to California recently have documented the expensive problems ficus trees bring to cities. Most trees were planted 30 years or more ago, and are now proving more than a match for concrete.

All the bad publicity means that, for many landscape architects and contractors, ficus trees are now off planting lists.

The city of Oxnard, Calif. is now spending $3.3 million to remedy and replant ficus damage. The California cities of El Segundo, Glendale, Hollywood and Ventura recently completed their own expensive ficus mitigation projects.

Also in Southern California, the city of Commerce is taking aggressive steps against ficus trees too. Unlike other locales, however, some Commerce residents are rallying to the trees' defense.

The below excerpt is from an April 16 article in the Los Angeles Times.

--Erik Skindrud

"Valuing Sidewalks More Than Trees?"

The graceful old ficus trees that line the streets of Commerce have long sheltered residents of this heavily industrial city from the hot summer sun.

So when lush green ficus canopies started vanishing, alarmed residents started asking questions.

They learned that city officials had approved a plan to cut down nearly 1,000 ficus to reduce the costs of repairing sidewalks cracked by the trees' powerful roots.

Last year, a local environmental group went to court to save the city's shade. In August, a Superior Court judge ruled that the city could not remove the trees without a state-mandated environmental study.

Yet ficus have continued to disappear, one or two or three at a time. In their place, the city is planting young trees with trunks a mere inch or two in diameter that barely cast a shadow.

Resident John Serfozo, however, is angry.

"These are beautiful trees. They are year-round. They are evergreen. They are producing oxygen," said Serfozo, 57, who owns a machine tool repair company.

The city says most residents don't see things that way. "The majority of people here in Commerce, they want the trees cut down," said Hector Orozco, tree and street maintenance supervisor. "If it were up to them, it would look like Arizona down here."

Local activist Angelo Logan said it was ironic that for the 20th year, Commerce had been named a "Tree City" by the National Arbor Day Foundation.

"The city," he said, "is valuing sidewalks more than trees."

City Policies Vary

Tree experts say that for a city to consider removing 1,000 trees -- or even a fraction of that -- is unusual.

"That's a tremendous amount," said Los Angeles' chief forester, George Gonzalez, who estimates his city approves the removal of 300 to 500 trees a year because of sidewalk or other structural damage.

Commerce totals 6.6 square miles. Sprawling Los Angeles covers 470 square miles.

The glossy-leaved, nonnative ficus became highly popular as a street tree in the 1950s and '60s as new suburbs were filling the Los Angeles Basin.

Now, those trees have grown so large that many California cities are cursing their pervasive roots. In Newport Beach, residents went to court to save 25 ficus from the city's saws, settling in 2002 when all but two had been removed.

People Point to Trees' Good Side

The leafy canopies help filter air in a city considered among the most polluted in the county. They muffle the sounds of screeching brakes and train whistles. Many of the 14,000 people in the largely Latino community cannot afford central air conditioning, so they count on trees to cool their homes in summer.

TreePeople, a Los Angeles group, reports that an acre of trees can provide enough oxygen in one year for 18 people, and that three well-placed trees can reduce summer air-conditioning needs up to 50%.

In Los Angeles, no tree is cut down because of its roots unless an inspector makes a recommendation to the Board of Public Works and a commissioner signs off on it, Gonzalez said.

Some cities have turned to rubberized sidewalks that flex and bend as tree roots grow. The idea originated with Richard Valeriano, a sidewalk inspector in Santa Monica. In response, Lindsay Smith founded Rubbersidewalks Inc. in Gardena and began production in 2004.

Today, 70 cities nationwide have installed the sidewalks, including 40 in California, Smith said.

Sources: L.A. Times, Ventura County Star

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November 19, 2019, 10:19 pm PDT

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