Village Matters

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Giant in Distress

By Ann Christoph.
By Ann Christoph.

Whoo..whoo, whoo…I heard the repeated haunting calls of owls early this morning. They were coming from the giant Torrey pine tree across the street from our house. Today they seemed to be asking, “ how much longer will we have this sheltered lookout perch?”

With the winds, more needles are falling every day. But this year there are more than ever before. That is because a large area of the tree has dead brown needles. The tree is most likely infected with the engraver beetle that seeks out stressed trees. “When pines lack sufficient access to water, they struggle to fight off attack by engraver beetles,” the city’s arborist Cris Falco says. Vic Hillstead, Laguna Beach deputy director of public works, has already had the tree injected with an insecticide and will be removing the diseased wood. That course of action plus long-term slow watering restored the tree to health about eight years ago when it had a similar but smaller infestation.

Hillstead will wait to remove the dead branches and tips until December or January because beetles are dormant during cold weather. The open cuts from pruning will have time to seal over before the beetles are roaming again. Pruners will diligently remove all infected wood to a safe disposal site. Sorry, we don’t want infected wood piles stacked around that the beetles can use as home base.

Falco documents the tree as having a 99-inch diameter trunk. It is possibly the largest tree in Laguna Beach. Beach returnees trudging up the Second Avenue hill look up and get an impressive view of the magnificent tree. We hear them wondering about its age. “It has to be a couple of hundred years old!” they speculate. However, we believe it was planted in the 1940s, since there is no evidence of it in earlier aerial photos. A hefty bush that could be a young Torrey pine appears in Bill Thomas’s oblique air photo of 1946.

Neighbors have embarked on a watering program. While the canopy of the tree is gigantic, the roots spread even further. Watering in the residential gardens surrounding the tree has been helping it survive for decades. Irrigation restrictions due to the drought, along with our record heat this summer and fall has probably made our tree extra vulnerable to beetle attack.

That’s the problem with single-minded compliance—the effect on other important factors. For years water districts, environmentalists, and landscape architects have been making subtle encouraging water-saving suggestions to the public. Drought tolerant plants are nothing new; Fred Lang has been recommending them in Laguna since the 1950s and succulents and other non-thirsty plants are among my favorites. But Gov. Brown’s announcement atop the snow-barren Sierra put most of California on water-saving alert. Over-reacting, Californians have let gardens go brown, torn out lawns in favor of plastic-based artificial turf, and overlooked how mature trees have been depending on the watering in our general landscape areas for their whole lives.

It’s all a balance. What is the best way to save water without losing important landscape resources? How do we provide shade and coolness from trees, saving energy, yet find an un-shaded place for solar panels to save on consuming fossil fuels? How do we respond to fire safety concerns, removing dead wood and dry foliage, without damaging the shade, protection and garden atmosphere that plants afford?


Now that we’ve gone too far with the water saving, at least with this tree, we’ll be trying to re-establish equilibrium. We’ll be trying hard to save this tree once again. When the owls ask, “Whoo…whoo, whoo is looking out for our tree?” We’ll say, “Yes, it’s us.”


Landscape architect Ann Christoph lives in the shadow of the towering Torrey pine in question.









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