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90-Year-Old Tree Gets New Roots : Landmarks: A venerable tree that had stood in a place of honor at Gregorio Del Amo's nursery is moved.

February 11, 1990|GEORGE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This was no ordinary tree planting.

Carefully, slowly, the rare, 90-year-old Melaleuca linarafolia was lowered into a hole in the lawn of the Dominguez Ranch Adobe museum on Alameda Street in the Compton area.

Although it took a crane to hoist the 10 tons of dirt and tree, it was not the tree's 30-foot span that made it special, nor its gnarled trunk and shaggy bark.

It was that this melaleuca is, in a way, returning to its historic roots.

The tree's final home is near the family crypt of Gregorio Del Amo, who had planted it in a place of honor at his Del Amo Nurseries.

Del Amo, a native of Spain whose name lives on as a street designation and as the name of one of the largest shopping malls in the country, established the nursery in 1923 on land near the adobe. His marriage to Susana Dominguez de Del Amo had connected him to the rancho and the pioneer family, which once owned most of the South Bay under a Spanish land grant.

Between 1931 and 1934, Del Amo planted more than 6,000 trees and shrubs in the 100-acre nursery along the east side of Dominguez Hill. It was reputed to be the largest nursery growing trees in the ground in the country. It stocked more than 200 species, including cacti, mountain lilac, laurel, sumac, deodars, eucalyptus, pines and sequoias.

"Every bush and shrub native to the Western part of the United States was used," according to a family history of the Dominguez clan.

The planters did not have modern backhoes to dig holes for the shrubs in the hardpan soil, but they had something just as good--dynamite. They used 1,000 sticks.

Trees from the nursery wound up in Carson, Compton, Dominguez Hills, Long Beach and other parts of the area.

"In its day, it was a very famous, productive nursery," said Tad Head, owner of the Four Seasons Garden nursery in Compton.

Del Amo died in 1941 and was laid to rest in the crypt at Dominguez Ranch Adobe.

Over the years, many original plants died natural deaths and others were burned in a series of fires set by transients who camped among the trees. The California Department of Transportation took soil for a freeway. Bits and pieces of the nursery became mobile home parks and industrial sites.

Finally, about 15 years ago, the Del Amo nursery closed, and nine large melaleucas were moved to a tree lot across from Cal State Dominguez Hills on Victoria Street, which is used by the Four Seasons nursery.

One by one they were sold from the lot. One went to Joan Kroc, widow of Ray Kroc, the man who established the McDonald's fast-food restaurant chain. Another went to actor Martin Sheen.

Finally, one was left, the biggest, with a price tag of $50,000.

"It was so big that no one knew how to ship it," Head said.

Caltrans refused to give a permit for hauling it on state roads or freeways.

Father Patrick McPolin, the wily curator of the adobe, had had his eye on the tree for years. And when Four Seasons decided to close the lot this year, McPolin made his move.

Arguing that the melaleuca belonged with Del Amo, he persuaded Head to donate the tree, as well as the labor and equipment to plant it.

No Caltrans permit was needed because the route was not over state highways. Compton, whose streets were used, granted permission readily.

Last week, the backhoe had done its job, and a crew from Four Seasons guided the massive tree into its new resting place in the lawn in front of the Dominguez museum.

Field manager Jose Curiel watched anxiously as the tree settled slowly into place and then came to a stop.

"That's perfect," he said, smiling.

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