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Giant Ventura fig tree's fame may be its undoing

Arborists are concerned that throngs of visitors may be a factor in the icon's waning health.

July 31, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

For decades, the giant Moreton Bay fig tree in downtown Ventura has been a stately parasol, providing 140 feet of leafy shade to gawking tourists, climbing kids and snoozing transients.

Over its 133-year history, it has been a focal point for community events, including a campaign stop by presidential candidate Teddy Roosevelt, a concert by composer John Philip Sousa and scores of political rallies.

But now city parks officials are concerned that "the Moreton fig," as it's called locally, may be too popular for its own good.

Workers in recent months have noted that the tree's massive crown is thinning in spots. Although the 74-foot high tree still has masses of thick, glossy leaves, a few areas are noticeably scrawnier, with a few leaves at the end of spindly branches.

That's a sign that something's wrong, said arborist Edwin Slowik, brought in by the city to make a diagnosis. Slowik will make recommendations to the city after examining potential causes.

Fixes can include adding a thicker layer of wood-chip mulch around the tree's base or restricting access to its sensitive root area. Nathan Slack, Ventura's tree coordinator, called the tree an important part of Ventura's history and community.

"When you have a large tree like that you want to make the environment as perfect as you can," Slack said. "It's like when we get old -- we need to be babied a little more."

Last week, a team of workers dug trenches near massive roots that spread 90 feet around the tree. Slowik carefully gathered bagfuls of earth and marked them for transportation to local labs for soil analysis. He also collected "feeder roots," smaller offshoots of the main root system responsible for taking up the tree's needed water and nutrients.

Many of the feeder roots appeared dry and shriveled, Slowik said. There could be a number of causes, including this year's drought, fungal infection or simply age, he said.

But Slowik thinks the main culprit is compaction of the soil around the roots, from years of people walking around the tree. When the earth gets too hard, the tree has difficulty drawing up water and nutrients, he said.

As part of Ventura's urban core, the tree faces other challenges, he said. An asphalt walkway passes over a portion of its root system. With surface-feeding roots, the tree depends on a supply of fallen leaves to act as natural fertilizer, Slowik said. But city workers rake up the leaves.

The tree was planted in 1874 in Plaza Park, then on the eastern outskirts of downtown Ventura. Other Moreton figs were planted in Southern California about the same time, including one in Santa Paula and another in Santa Barbara.

A native of eastern Australia, the Moreton Bay fig, or Ficus macrophylla, has adapted well to Southern California's more arid climate, frequently growing taller than 70 feet.

This has led to friendly competition between communities claiming the largest of the elephantine trees.

Santa Paula's specimen stands 85 feet tall and has a 131-foot-wide canopy and a trunk 9 feet in diameter. Ventura's is a close second, at 73.5 feet and 140 feet wide, with an 8-foot, 8-inch trunk.

But the mother of all Moreton Bay fig trees is in Santa Barbara. Though a mere 76 feet tall, the tree has a 172-foot-wide canopy and 12.5-foot trunk.

Statistics, however, were of no concern to a knot of tourists who recently came upon Ventura's behemoth.

The Viks and the Haros had come to the coastal city to beat inland heat and found the Moreton fig while taking in the local sights.

The adults pulled out a camera, and six children clambered next to the base of the massive tree. A few snapshots and they were done.

"That's the biggest tree I ever saw!" said Nicholas Vik, 11.

His sister Casandra, 10, said she was impressed with the length of the branches and with roots that stuck out of the ground like dinosaur claws.

"It's old and beautiful," she said. "I hope nothing bad happens to it."

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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