Throughout the Southland, massive Moreton Bay figs are the undisputed arboreal kings of the urban forest.
Ficus macrophylla, commonly known as the Moreton Bay fig, a native of Australia, is from the same family that includes the common fig, the Indian Banyan, and the Indian Rubber Tree. As a rainforest tree in its natural environment, the tall Moreton Bay fig often rises well above the rest of the canopy. Early importers to California in the late 1800s, however, had no idea of the massive size a single, unencumbered specimen could achieve.
Distinctive for its massive trunk, wide-spreading crown, and “buttressed” root structure, Moreton Bay figs were introduced throughout Southern California as specimen trees in numerous city landscapes. Over 100 years later, many remain, such as the first four in Los Angeles—planted by Elijah Hook Workman in 1875—which still grace the historic L.A. Plaza today.
Several singular Moreton Bay figs are now some of the largest trees in Southern California and, like Pasadena’s own massive fig, have become signature city landmarks. We look at three of the largest here:
- Planted in 1876, the Moreton Bay fig in Santa Barbara (just off the 101 freeway) is the largest in the state, and believed to be the largest in the country. As legend has it, a young girl who received the seedling from an Australian sailor planted the tree, and it was transplanted a few years later to its current location on the corner of Montecito and Chapalla streets. An official historic landmark, in 2010 the tree was measured as 80 feet high with a spread of 198 feet.
- Planted two years before the Santa Barbara fig, Ventura’s massive old tree graces the corner of Plaza Park in downtown. A historic fixture of the city, the stately tree has been the site of many city events including a campaign stop by Teddy Roosevelt when he was running for president, and a concert by famous composer John Phillip Sousa. The 150-year-old tree boasts a canopy 140 feet across, and a crown reaching 75 feet into the sky.
- As the story goes, an Australian sailor, back in the 1880s had been drinking in Santa Monica and was unable to pay his bill. Instead, he offered the bartender a Moreton Bay fig sapling as payment. Having no use for it himself, the bartender gave the sapling to the wife of Sen. Percy Jones, who had it planted on their estate, the former grounds of which are now occupied by L.A.’s iconic Miramar Hotel. The tree, standing 80 feet tall, is the second largest in the state and remains as a massive sentinel at the hotel entrance.