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Family Feud...Southern California Style

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
February 11, 1998


It seems that the "trees vs views" debate is heating up again in Del Mar, and I'm beginning to spot a constant in this ongoing battle. Ficus trees. The king of all ficus fiascoes was the Dickey-Keeling feud which involved 42 ficus trees holding a killer view hostage. Thankfully the City Council voted in  favor of the killer view, and declared the ficus trees a public nuisance.

Currently Del Mar residents Jerry Hoffmeister (another victim of Ficus gigantis), and Laura Parker are suggesting that the city enact a tree ordinance protecting established views from a neighbor who decides he can't live without a dense exotic in his yard. I whole heartedly agree, in fact I think all coastal North County cities should do the same.

Breaking out my trusted Western Garden Book I discovered that there is no breed of ficus that is indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. And that ficus trees originally come from India, Malaya, Australia and tropical Africa. So not only are they foreign invaders, that are also not drought tolerant. Bad tree!

For Christmas this past year we decorated a native sycamore (Platanus racemosa) with the intent of planting it in our yard. And as I expected, one of our neighbors complained. In a very nice tone she assured me that they would not hesitate to trim Zachariah, that's the tree's name, if he blocked their view.

As I was planting Zachariah, Mrs. Neighborlady questioned my reason for planting a tree that has the potential to grow the stately height of 100 ft. I told her I had noticed that there were no native trees in the neighborhood, and I planned to remedy that. Countering, she said that Sycamores drop their leaves, making a mess that she did not want to clean up. "Mulch not mess," was my response. She was not impressed.

I should point out that these are the same neighbors who have a huge ficus, and an even taller eucalyptus, blocking our ocean view. Where we differ from our myopic neighbors is in that we have never asked them to trim or remove their offending non-natives. Instead we have countered with oak and sycamore. Seemed fair enough. Personally, I love to watch the sun set through the silhouette of a sycamore.

I went on to explain to Mrs. Neighborlady, that birds and other native animals need native trees to survive, whereas ornamental non-natives do not contribute to their existence. I explained that natives are drought resistant, and that we never know when southern California is going to run out of water. "It's a balance thing," I said. She was still not impressed.

Since Zachariah would not be big enough to consider chopping off part of him for at least another 10 years, I finally suggested that we wait until the tree became a problem and deal with it then. As Mrs. Neighborlady returned to tending her lawn and garden, I assured Zachariah that he had nothing to fear, and that I would protect him from the ficus women.  A reprieve leading to retreat, it was a good day.

Recently the Clinton Administration has declared war on native species, issuing an executive order to expand federal efforts to combat the growing problems created by the quiet influx of foreign plants into the United States. In my opinion, the new Invasive Species Council, should also address the fact that an individual can rarely find indigenous plants at the local nursery, but has no problem finding non-native plants from all over the world.

If you ask me a eucalyptus trees are just as invasive as leafy spurge. Perhaps the cities of coastal North County can follow the lead of Washington and create policy that discourages property owners, including themselves, from planting non-native plants. By doing so we can actually save money and conserve water, while providing habitat for native animal species.

Usually the trees that are most annoying are the ones that need constant attention. I know that once a native plant is established it needs no assistance in survival. Having evolved here is coastal North County, Live oaks and Torrey pines are adept at pulling moisture from the air and nutrients from fallen leaves and the detritus the accumulates beneath them.

Although protecting views is important, more vital to the well-being of Southern California's entire coastal region is the preservation of native species. And if that includes a ban on planting trees of non-indigenous nature, then so be it. Views can mean more than an expanse of blue sky. They can also include nesting birds and the smooth textures of a sycamore‘s trunk. I figure if people want ficus trees in their front yard, they can always move to the India.

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