The Ficus trees lining the business district of Larchmont Boulevard have long been the subject of heated discussion. Some people love them for their broad, shady canopy, their interesting branch structures, and the way they define the shopping district. They bring some of nature’s softness to our urban landscape. Others hate them because the strong, thirsty roots buckle the sidewalks dangerously, leading to possible lawsuits, and damage the plumbing of the businesses nearby. The fact that the Larchmont trees have been harshly pruned into awkward lollipop shapes is another strike against them.
What — if anything — to do? Early last month, a small group of merchants and residents gathered to hear a presentation on the subject by an experienced urban arborist, sponsored by the Larchmont Village Business Improvement District (BID).
The arborist began by explaining that all trees have a certain life span, and opined that the Village trees, planted in 1955, may be reaching their natural end. He said he had assessed the health of each tree, noting the condition of the visible roots and branch structure. While heavy root pruning has been necessary to try to prevent regular sidewalk damage, that pruning can also lead to root rot and general stress. Although the arborist cited three individual trees that he believes are beyond repair and should be removed soon, his report to the BID stated: “there are various alternative options that can happen to assist in the retention of most of the trees.”
The arborist’s report concluded: “All trees that produce into substantial canopies will eventually cause root damage. However, if the proper root damage prevention is done, and then maintained on a regular basis, coupled with routine and timely tree maintenance the potential for root damage can be minimalized.”
Of course, if the three trees are removed, what goes in their places? A different species? The arborist had a few recommendations of trees that have been successfully used as replacements for old Ficus trees, such as African Fern Pine or Brisbane Box. There is already one young Brisbane Box in front of Pickett Fences, and interested citizens can check out Brentwood Village to see how that community looks at mature street trees there. However, some communities, such as Santa Monica, handle their Ficus trees more successfully— continuing to replant the species in some places, such as along Montana Avenue. According to one of Santa Monica’s city foresters, they have an “aggressive sidewalk repair program,” and they prune their trees less often and more naturally, which leads to slower root growth.
Before any irreversible action is taken on Larchmont, the WSA believes more voices need to learn what’s in the music and then maybe join the chorus. This will take a bit more time. In the meantime, the existing Ficus trees should be rehabilitated with more skillful pruning, for as long as they can continue to grace our charming village.