Fiddle Leaf Fig

Juvenile growth is almost never seen locally.

What a weird tree! Fiddle leaf fig, Ficus lyrata, is an uncommon but familiar large scale houseplant that we might not welcome into our homes if we knew how it behaves where it grows wild in the lower rainforests of Western Africa. Although it can grow upward from the ground like almost all other trees do, it often germinates and begins to grow as an epiphyte, within organic debris that accumulates in the branch unions of other trees. While suspended, it extends roots downward. Once these roots reach the forest floor, they develop into multiple trunks that overwhelm and crush the host tree as they grow.

The bold foliage is typically dark drab green, like the shades of green that were so popular for Buicks in 1970, with prominent pale green veins. Individual leaves are about a foot long and potentially nearly as broad at the distal (outward) ends, often with randomly wavy margins. Like fiddles, they are narrower in the middles, or actually more often narrower at the proximal (inward) ends. When pruning becomes necessary, the caustic sap should be soaked from fresh cuts with paper towels so that it does not drip and stain.

Tipu Tree

Sidewalks and curbs prefer tipu trees.

It may not get too tall, but with appropriate pruning, the tipu tree, Tipuana tipu, spreads a broad canopy high enough to be a good street tree. A mature tree is not much more than thirty feet tall and at least as broad. Roots are not too aggressive. A slight bit of mess is rarely but actually more likely to be a problem. The pale yellowish flowers that fall early in summer are followed by a few seeds. Not too long after the seeds stop falling, the deciduous foliage starts to fall. The soft green leaves are pinnately compound, with eleven to seventeen leaflets that are about an inch and a half long. Tipu tree is still uncommon, but really should be more popular than it is.

Taking It To The Streets

Tipu tree is the topic for tomorrow.

No matter how unique the individual gardens are, conforming street trees really unify a neighborhood. Streets of tract homes are typically planted with a common street tree that is complimentary to the architectural styles of the homes, and is complaisant to the difficulties of life at the curb. Neighborhoods of mixed architectural styles sometimes have difficulty finding a tree that suits every home, so often select two or more options. Older neighborhoods are not quite as selective about conforming street trees because so many various trees get mixed in over the years.

Before selecting a street tree, it is best to inquire with the particular municipality about designated street trees. Home owners associations generally install their own trees where needed, with little or no regard for the preferences of individual residents. Some urban neighborhoods (that are not home owner associations) are nearly as selective, requiring individual home owners to maintain a specific street tree or trees. Others do not require street trees, but limit selection for those who desire them. Selection is very often limited to only a single species.

There are of course many rural and unincorporated neighborhoods without limitations for street trees, and neighborhoods where limitations simply are not enforced. However, selection should still be limited to trees that are appropriate for curbside planting. Such trees should have high branch structure so that they can be pruned for clearance above the largest of trucks that can use the roadway. They should be reasonably clean, and not produce anything that could be messy on cars parked below. Roots should be complaisant with concrete curbs and sidewalks, particularly where space is limited. Foliage and bark must be resilient to harsh exposure and enhanced glare (from surrounding pavement).

London plane (sycamore) and crape myrtle trees are the two most common street trees planted by landscapers, and are the most commonly pre-designated street trees, but are actually not the best of choices. London plane is popular among landscapers because it can survive the neglect that landscapers are notorious for, but has aggressive roots that eventually damage concrete, especially since landscapers waste so much water and keep the soil saturated. Crape myrtle is remarkably colorful both in bloom and with fall color, and has remarkably complaisant roots, but does not get tall enough for adequate clearance, and often gets infested with insects that drop sticky honeydew on parked cars.

This was the topic for yesterday.

Silver Mountain Gum

Silver mountain gum is remarkably glaucous.

The strikingly glaucous juvenile foliage of silver mountain gum, Eucalyptus pulverulenta, is likely more familiar within floral design than in home gardens. Actually, it is uncommon within home gardens, although quite popular as cut foliage among florists. Its paired and sessile leaves are oval or bluntly cordate (‘heart shaped’), and about an inch or two long.

Adult growth is rare, even among established trees. However, small white flowers bloom from the axils of juvenile leaves that are a year old. (Juvenile growth of most species can not bloom.) Bloom might continue from spring until autumn, as blooming stems sag from the weight of younger distal growth. The aromatic and evergreen leaves stiffen with age.

Low and shrubby specimens with a few trunks may not get much higher than fifteen feet. They have potential to get twice as tall though, particularly if pruned up onto bare trunks. Lignotubers expand below the trunks. Strips of old bark shed to reveal fresh matte brown bark. Incidentally, the Latin name of this species often transposes for Eucalyptus cinerea.

Can’t See The Forest For The Trees

Even small trees can become obtrusive.

Foliage is often employed to obscure views. Evergreen shrubbery or trees can provide privacy in the garden or for windows. It can just as easily hide unappealing buildings in the distance, or driveways where cars get parked. Unfortunately, too much foliage often obscures desirable views or interferes with lighting.

There are all sorts of reasons to control greenery that might otherwise get overgrown. Overgrown shrubbery and trees not only hides the architectural appeal of a home, but can also be a security risk by concealing windows and doors that burglars might break into, and by obscuring security lighting and street lights. Too much shade prevents lower plants from getting the sunlight they need.

The best way to limit overgrowth is by selecting plants that stay proportionate to their intended functions. For example, shrubbery below windows should naturally stay lower than the lower windowsills. Shade trees for areas where views should stay open should have high branch structure and relatively bare trunks. Well, most of know that this does not always happen.

The options are limited for greenery that wants to get larger than it should. Obviously, it can be pruned regularly; but this may be more work than it is worth, and can cause disfigurement Some plants can be pruned less frequently if pruned more severely, but will be bare and potentially unsightly for quite a bit of time. Overgrown plants can alternatively be removed and replaced with plants that are more proportionate to intended functions.

An option that is not often considered is an ‘updo’. Trees and large shrubbery that are obtrusive to views or lighting can be pruned up and over what they are being obtrusive to. For example, lower growth of large pittosporums that is covering low windows can be pruned away to expose bare inner trunks supporting higher growth. The lower trunks can be appealingly sculptural without being too concealing. This works nicely for large shrubbery like viburnum, bottlebrush, oleander, photinia and pineapple guava.

Street trees that interfere with street lights (or marquis on storefronts) may need to be updo pruned a few times for adequate clearance, but these procedures are much less work, are less disfiguring to the affected trees, and produce more appealing results than keeping trees down.

Red Willow

Red willow is a riparian native.

Of the few native species that share the same designation of ‘red willow’, Salix lasiandra, is likely the most common locally. However, it has a few other common names, including shining willow and Pacific willow. For those acquainted with it, recognition is easier than nomenclature. It is not a problem though, since red willow is rarely an intentional choice.

Red willows, including less common species, grow wild in local riparian situations. They sometimes sneak into home gardens, particularly if irrigation is generous. Their rampant growth is susceptible to spontaneous limb failure. Pruning can compensate for structural deficiency of young trees. However, trunks typically succumb to decay within thirty years.

Mature trees are mostly less than thirty feet tall, typically with low branches, and possibly with a few elegant trunks. The gray or light brown bark is finely furrowed. The deciduous foliage has a slight sheen, and then turns brownish yellow prior to autumn defoliation. Its narrow leaves are about three inches long. Twigs are yellowish or green rather than red, as it implies.

Streets Might Benefit From Shade

Proportion is important for street trees.

Shade has become less of a priority for modern urban gardens than it still is for older and more spacious suburban gardens. Significantly less sunlight reaches the ground of such confined gardens among taller and shadier homes and fences. Even where shade might be desirable, space for shade trees might be minimal. Streets are the primary exception.

Streets, and associated curbs and sidewalks, are generally the sunniest situations within modern urban neighborhoods. They collect and radiate ambient heat that warms nearby homes and gardens, even if the weather is already unpleasantly warm. Cars that park on pavement without shade are vulnerable to the most heat, which accelerates weathering.

It is an unfortunate waste. Sunshine that is useless and undesirable on streets would be useful within gardens. Although sunlight is not transferable from one situation to another, it might be partially abatable with shade. Streets are certainly no place for gardening; but the space above them may have potential to accommodate the canopies of shade trees.

Street trees are simply trees that flank streets and other roadways. Most are shady. A few are merely visually appealing. They may inhabit parkstrips, treewells or gardens that are adjacent to sidewalks. Many municipalities prescribe street trees for most of their streets. Conforming street trees are standard accessories for streets within new residential tracts.

Of course, street trees must be appropriate to their particular applications. They must get tall enough for clearance above the largest of vehicles that use the roadways below. For commercial districts, some must also stay above storefront signs. Contrarily, a few street trees must stay below aerial utilities. Street lamps, high or low, require clearance as well.

Size and form are not the only considerations. Roots of street trees must be complaisant with infrastructure. Mess should be as minimal as practical. The most complaisant street trees might stay too small to attain adequate clearance or provide much shade. The most visually appealing might be too messy. Selection of appropriate street trees necessitates significant research regarding every potential option.


Tanoak is rare within refined landscapes.

Its plump and inch-long acorns are misleading. Tanoak, Notholithocarpus densiflorus, is not actually an oak. Otherwise, it would be a species of Quercus. Regardless, its wood is potentially as practical for furniture and flooring as wood of other oaks. It also works very well as firewood. Historically, tanoak bark was useful for tanning leather, hence its name.

Although native and somewhat common in some coastal forests, tanoak is almost never a choice for intentional planting. Those that inhabit home gardens likely either grew from acorns, or were there prior to development of the landscapes. Young trees can grow fast to more than forty feet tall, typically with conical form. Mature trees might get twice as tall.

Tall trunks of tanoak are elegantly upright, and eventually develop lofty branch structure. Their gray or brownish bark is handsomely furrowed. The somewhat leathery evergreen foliage produces potentially objectionable tomentum. The dentate leaves are two to four inches long. Sadly, tanoak is very susceptible to Sudden Oak Death Syndrome (SODS).

Argyle Apple

Silvery foliage with fibrous brown bark.

Such silvery foliage provides a bold display on such a substantial tree. Most comparably silvery foliage is of smaller perennials or shrubbery, such as agaves or artemisias. Agyle apple, Eucalyptus cinerea, grows intimidatingly fast to nearly thirty feet tall and almost as wide. Although shorter than most other eucalypti, it can get a hundred feet tall in the wild. 

Paired juvenile leaves of young trees are circular and sessile (clinging directly to stems, without petioles). Unpaired adult leaves are lanceolate and as silvery as juvenile leaves. Coppicing or pollarding force juvenile growth and temporarily eliminate adult growth, but also ruin structural integrity. Trees subsequently rely on repetition of the same technique. 

Trunks and limbs can be disproportionately bulky, and create an illusion of a bigger tree. Irregular branch structure can be sculptural. Fibrous brown bark is handsomely furrowed. Juvenile foliage is a popular accessory to cut flowers. Adult foliage is likewise delightful. Incidentally, the Latin name of this species often transposes for Eucalyptus pulverulenta.

Sudden Limb Failure Jeopardizes Safety

Entire trees can also fall unexpectedly.

Windy weather sometimes breaks limbs from trees, or blows entire trees over. Evergreen trees are innately more susceptible to such damage than deciduous trees are. Wind can blow more easily through deciduous trees while they are bare through winter, when most wind occurs. However, deciduous trees are now more susceptible to sudden limb failure. 

Sudden limb failure, or spontaneous limb failure, is a result of gravity rather than of wind. It is actually more likely without wind, during mild or warm weather, particularly with high humidity. It consequently has potential to be more hazardous than limbs that blow down. More people go outside among trees during mild weather, and fewer expect falling limbs. 

Sudden limb failure occurs if limbs become unable to support their own increasing foliar weight. Warmth accelerates vascular activity, which sustains foliar growth. High humidity and a lack of wind inhibit evapotranspiration (evaporation from foliage), which otherwise helps to alleviate excessive weight. Developing fruit can also cause sudden limb failure.

In the wild, willows, poplars, sycamores, and perhaps a few other riparian trees regularly and naturally exhibit partial sudden limb failure. Limbs that fracture and sag onto soil, but remain partially attached to their original tree, can generate roots and grow as new trees. Although their strategy is practical for them, it is unacceptable within refined landscapes. 

Several native and exotic trees of chaparral climate are quite susceptible to sudden limb failure within or adjacent to irrigated landscapes. Since they are not accustomed to such abundant moisture, they overindulge. Mature wild trees are more likely to exhibit sudden limb failure after an unusually rainy and warm winter, or if rain continued late into spring.

All native oaks, particularly valley oak and coast live oak, are susceptible to sudden limb failure. So are Monterey pine and Monterey cypress. Carob, sweetgum, various elm and various eucalypti are exotic species that are notorious for such behavior. Evergreens are more unpredictable, since their new growth is less obvious among their lingering foliage.