Whether clipped into lollipop shape or allowed to spread thick evergreen canopies, ficus trees have transformed the look of Southern California cities from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. They also have garnered great affection and, more recently, blossoming antagonism.
Hailed as a miracle tree able to thrive under tough urban conditions, two ficus varieties commonly called "Indian laurel fig" were planted in enormous numbers throughout Southern California in the late '50s and early '60s. But the trees grew into troubled maturities with unanticipated harvests of cracked sidewalks, invaded sewer lines, blocked street signs and expensive prunings.
As a result, some neighborhoods and cities now are ripping out Ficus microcarpa nitida and its close cousin, Ficus microcarpa retusa, and replacing them with different species. Many other areas are considering similar changes, stirring debate over how the region should dress itself in greenery.
"It was sold as the tree to plant. But they are an absolutely horrible, horrible street plant," said Ken Ayers, public works director in Gardena, which took out 70 mature Ficus microcarpa from Gardena Boulevard last year and switched to palms.
Brea, Hollywood, San Fernando, Ventura and Glendale, among others, also have removed Indian laurel from some streets. Most cities, at the minimum, have stopped planting new ficus.
In Anaheim and Santa Ana, ficus trees have fallen off the cities' list of recommended trees to plant.
"Every time you plant a ficus tree, because of its root structure and as soon as the tree starts maturing, you're going to have problems," said Paul Emery, Santa Ana's maintenance service manager.
"A ficus tree has not been planted in Santa Ana in more than 10 years," Emery said.
The Ficus microcarpa's reversal of fortune again can alter dramatically the appearance of Southern California streetscapes, experts say. Native to Malaysia and India, ficus trees with their light gray bark and lustrous green, pinched-oval leaves now connote California elegance and affluence, partly through their carefully manicured presence in Beverly Hills.
The look of California greenery has changed several times before. Native oaks and sycamores fell to grazing and housing tracts. Previous generations planted massive amounts of other nonnative trees such as palms and eucalyptus.
Still, the many ficus lovers are quick to allege that their removal is horticultural massacre. In Ventura last year, the chopping down of two dozen ficus as part of a Main Street revitalization project sparked petitions, street theater protests and the arrest of one man who chained himself to a doomed tree in front of a thrift shop.
In many cases, ficus are being replaced by palm trees. That trendy switch upsets fans of the dense shade and vibrant green that ficus trees add to otherwise hot and drab boulevards.
"My description of a palm tree is telephone pole with a cowlick," said Victoria Hochberg, a Hollywood neighborhood activist. "It does not provide any shade. It does not provide any feeling of safe harbor. It does not provide a place where you can sit and read, an encompassing space that provides solace and peace."
Because ficus trees provide those qualities, she mourns the removal last year of large ficus during roadwork and redevelopment on Highland Avenue near the Hollywood Bowl and the year before on Hollywood Boulevard.
Phil Pierce, the city of Orange's street division manager, said at one time the shady and grandiose characteristics of ficus made them the "premiere tree for parkways."
"They are evergreens that are fast growing, easy to shape and always look good," he said. Unlike most city public works officials, Pierce defends ficus trees and blames overgrown roots structures to poor street planning and management. Ficus are still being planted in Orange under strict soil, irrigation and parkway conditions, he said.
"We're not going to put ficus on arterial streets," Pierce said. "But wherever we do plant them, we take into consideration the soil type, parkway width and make sure they are not overwatered."
"I have 17 ficus trees in my backyard, so I can attest to this," he added. "We have not had one root problem from those trees, which are 30 to 40 years old."
Ficus-lined retail districts such as Highland Park's Figueroa Street and Hancock Park's Larchmont Boulevard, are cautiously debating whether to join the removal trend or make expensive accommodations.
"It's a very common problem all over the state actually," said E. Robert Bichowsky, an arborist based in San Diego.
Fifth Avenue in San Diego's lively Hillcrest area draws its identity as much from its bookstores and movie theaters as from its many 30-foot-tall ficus trees.