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In San Juan Capistrano, ardor for the arbor

At her 20-acre home, heiress Joan Irvine Smith lovingly cares for her California coastal oaks. Over the years, she's tried to give some of her precious trees away.

February 27, 2009|Paloma Esquivel

There is a point, at the eastern edge of San Juan Capistrano, where Orange County's seemingly boundless labyrinth of tile-roofed homes, ranch-style boxes and multimillion-dollar estates gives way to a largely unspoiled expanse of rivers, canyons and trees.

Here, with one border snuggled against the city's last neighborhoods and another ushering in the Santa Ana Mountains, is The Oaks, the 20-acre home of Joan Irvine Smith, her horses and her oak trees.

Smith, heiress of the family that made the name "Irvine" synonymous with master-planned communities, cares for her California coastal oaks as if they were her children. She works with a team of gardeners to plant seedlings and tends to them for years until they grow tall enough to move out and put down their roots elsewhere.

There are hundreds: seedlings with just one or two leaves in tin cans, adolescent trees a few feet tall in gallon tubs and full-grown trees in wooden crates. Others line the borders of Smith's property and are planted here and there across stretches of grass, lavishing shade on nothing in particular.

"I love these trees," Smith says. "I always have."

There are so many oaks they could one day fill the entire property, edging out everything else Smith has planted over the years -- the perfectly pink Queen Elizabeth rose bushes, the Fresno and Brazilian pepper trees, Mexican fan palms and yucca trees, flowering trumpet vines, orchids and aloe plants, and dozens and dozens of imposing sycamores, left leafless by the winter.

Over the years, Smith has tried to give some of her precious oaks away. She offered some to Irvine's planned Great Park, but "nothing was happening" on the project. She tried the Orange County park system, but "nobody ever did anything. Nobody ever made an effort to come get them."

Smith finally succeeded this month in giving 106 oaks, each more than 10 feet tall, to the city of San Juan Capistrano, where she's become known as an environmental voice.

She speaks at nearly every City Council meeting, most often to oppose a proposed toll road extension through south Orange County and the widening of Ortega Highway, which passes along one edge of her property.

A week after the city accepted her donation, she returned with a bottle of vitamin B12 and instructed city leaders to use the formula when replanting the trees. But for now, most of the oaks sit in a construction zone, waiting for a planned park to be built.

In the pantheon of things donated by Joan Irvine Smith to Orange County -- millions of dollars for museums, libraries, research centers and other organizations -- the oak trees might seem a small thing.

Yet to hear her tell it, these trees, with their tiny, spiny leaves and twisted branches, are part of the great history of California, one that somehow extends flawlessly from a time when the land was a barely populated stretch of coast through the era of Spanish missionaries and Mexican ranchers to the days of her grandfather James Irvine II and the regulated communities that sprang up in his wake.

"My grandfather," she said, "had a tremendous love for nature. If a road had to be built, he would not touch the trees, he would reroute around them. I think I gained that love of these trees from him."

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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