They were doing the line dance when what sounded like firecrackers split the air.
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Because the sound was to be expected at a Chinese lantern festival, no one immediately noticed the demise of a fig tree that for 144 years had watched skyscrapers built around it and a freeway carved out beside it; that saw the changing fashions and hairstyles of the people beneath it; that sheltered a growing number of homeless people from rain and sun.
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Advertisement > It wasnât the sound of firecrackers. It was the sound of a tree dying.
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“We saw the lanterns attached to the tree start to go,” said Teena Apeles, whose daughterâs troupe was waiting to perform. “We knew something was wrong.”
The tree seemed to fall in slow motion, the swoop of its descent dramatized by the red paper lanterns strung from its branches, Apeles said.
And with that, the four Moreton Bay figs that have towered for more than 140 years over the cradle of Los Angeles were three.
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Since 1875, the trees had formed a kind of compass circling El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the brick plaza where the city was founded
A Chinese lantern festival at El Pueblo de Los Angeles on March 2. A 144-year-old Moreton Bay fig in the background later fell. (Teena Apeles) Slumped on its side, the downed tree “looked like a dinosaur,” said Chris Espinosa, general manager of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. “It was so depressing.”
Espinosa said he had consulted with arborists about the health of the trees, but that their prognoses were made during the drought and were focused on keeping the trees healthy when water is scarce. The recent deluge has posed a different set of problems, he said
A city arborist inspected the trees this week and found the surviving ones in good shape, Espinosa said
A toppled Moreton Bay fig at El Pueblo de Los Angeles. Slumped on its side, the downed tree “looked like a dinosaur,” said Chris Espinosa, general manager of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. “It was so depressing.” (Teena Apeles) The four figs were planted at El Pueblo by agriculturalist and City Councilman Elijah Hook Workman, KCET reported in 2013 . The Ficus macrophylla was brought from Australia to Southern California in the 1860s and 1870s, probably to provide shade and ornamentation, said Donald Hodel, a horticulture advisor for the University of Californiaâs Cooperative Extension
At the time, the citrus industry was taking off, the region was being flooded with new trees and railroad companies were marketing Southern California as a botanical wonderland where anything and everything could be grown, said Frank McDonough, a botanist with Los Angeles County
“Having a big olâ Moreton Bay fig in the middle of downtown Los Angeles illustrated that quite nicely,” McDonough said
Hodel described the Moreton Bay fig as a commanding breed of tree with a enveloping canopy that throws plenty of shade.
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His reasons for admiring the Moreton Bay fig: “Their grandeur; their size — they have an imposing habit; their root structure is incredible; the spreading nature of their branches.”
Hodel said he last saw the El Pueblo figs about six years ago
Advertisement > “I wasnât too impressed by their health or their size, considering theyâre 140-something years old,” he said
The trees become unhealthy when the ground beneath their canopy is covered with concrete, preventing fallen leaves from decomposing and enriching the soil, Hodel and McDonough said
“In a well-maintained landscape — what I call âbenign neglect,â where you give a tree some water, let the leaves fall and leave them where they lay — I imagine it could live 200 years or more,” Hodel said
Today, there is barely a stump where the fig stood for 144 years at the southern point of El Puebloâs plaza. The tree was cut up with chain saws and hauled away with a crane
Dave McMenamin, who leads tours of the pueblo as president of the Las Angelitas del Pueblo, said it felt “like losing an old friend.”
Espinosa, El Puebloâs general manager, said they are fielding ideas for its replacement. Some have suggested a native tree, like an oak. Others have proposed Native American plants: the evergreen currant, the island snapdragon, hummingbird sage and creeping snowberry, Espinosa said. He called the medley “a very strong suggestion.”
“I still feel kind of bad when I go past it,” a man who gave his name only as “Joe” said of the stump. He has lived at the plaza for 25 years. “I mean, it took 150 years to get there, and to go like that …”
Then he shrugged. “But itâs like anything else around here. Itâs a tree. A tree is a tree is a tree.”