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Brentwood-area residents rally for upkeep of cherished coral trees

The city of Los Angeles planted the trees along San Vicente Boulevard after World War II to replace the discontinued Red Line trolley tracks. Residents and a local arborist say they could pose a threat if neglected and left untrimmed.

September 24, 2011|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • A coral tree lies in the median along San Vicente Boulevard, apparently the victim of a root-rotting fungus. Brentwood-area residents are rallying to raise funds for the upkeep of the boulevard's cherished coral trees, which were planted after World War II.
A coral tree lies in the median along San Vicente Boulevard, apparently… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Brentwood-area residents are rallying to raise funds for the upkeep of San Vicente Boulevard's cherished coral trees, one of which toppled over this month after succumbing to what appeared to be a root-rotting fungus.

The city of Los Angeles planted the trees after World War II to replace the discontinued Red Line trolley tracks but has limited funds to care for them. For decades, neighborhood residents have taken on much of the cost of pruning the trees, which are distinctive for their orange-scarlet blooms, twisting limbs and spreading canopies.

Residents and a local arborist contend that the trees, if neglected and left untrimmed, could pose a danger to motorists and pedestrians. Coral trees' brittle branches tend to crack off, and overly moist roots can rot, causing trees to keel over.

"They lend themselves to failure," said Ronald Lorenzen, assistant chief forester for Los Angeles' urban forestry division. "That said, we can't ever tell when the trees are going to fail."

The tree that collapsed earlier this month might have fallen victim to over-watering, according to Lisa Smith, an arborist who lives in Brentwood.

While the city has trimmed the trees occasionally in recent decades, it regularly waters the grassy San Vicente median — a popular thoroughfare for joggers and dog walkers. Although good for the grass, heavy watering is not so good for the trees, Smith said. Because the soil is clayey, she added, large amounts of water can make the trees' roots vulnerable to oak root fungus. Watering also causes the trees to grow very quickly, making their branches more likely to crack.

"Right now it's like having them on steroids," Smith said of the watering. "We're pumping them up and pushing them to grow in hyper speed. If we reduced the volume of water, we could reduce the amount of limb breakage and protect the base of the trunk."

On Saturday, coral tree huggers will hold a rally to start a public campaign to raise money for the trees' care.

In about 1950, roughly 120 of the trees were planted along a five-mile stretch of San Vicente Boulevard from the western edge of the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus to the coast in Santa Monica.

In 1966, the Los Angeles City Council declared the coral tree the city's official tree, and in 1976 the San Vicente stand was declared a city historic-cultural monument.

Activists have waged a nearly constant battle to keep the trees healthy.

Now, because of budget cuts, city crews are trimming or removing trees only on an emergency basis, Lorenzen said. (Santa Monica trims its own coral trees once every year or two, primarily out of concern that falling limbs could injure joggers, said Randy Little, the city's public landscape manager.)

Brentwood residents have been quietly building an endowment fund to replace a 30-year-old tree-care kitty that has just about run dry.

Nancy Freedman, co-chairwoman of the Brentwood Community Council, said organizers of the new Brentwood Coral Tree Endowment Fund have so far raised about $300,000 through requests to homeowners groups and individuals. The goal is $500,000, which they hope will generate enough income to provide for care in perpetuity, including annual pruning.

Speakers at Saturday's fundraising event will include Amy Goldenberg Sweeney, daughter of the late Barbara Goldenberg, a longtime Brentwood resident who spearheaded the original SOS Coral Trees fundraising drive.

At Saturday's fundraiser, actress Betty White will be accepting proclamations from the city and Los Angeles County. White said she contributed toward the initial planting and in 1955 served as honorary hostess when the San Vicente median was extended to the Santa Monica border. She has also donated $50,000 toward the new fund.

"We have to save those gorgeous coral trees," White said.

martha.groves@latimes.com

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