Big Fig

Because for most of my teen years I had thought I’d become a marine biologist, when it was time to head for college, I picked a school near water. I had visited California a number of times with my family, loved it, and had a list of schools to check out. However, when I visited a friend at Westmont in Santa Barbara, I knew I’d found the place for me. A small, private college with an outstanding biology department in one of the most beautiful settings on the planet.

Among the things I fell in love with in Santa Barbara were the trees, especially the abundant eucalyptus trees, but also one particularly astonishing tree between the highway and the railway in downtown Santa Barbara: the city’s almost legendary Moreton Bay Fig. I soon learned that it was started from a seedling brought from Australia. The Santa Barbara tree is not the only fig transplanted from Australia, but it is thought to be the largest Moreton Bay Fig in the United States, and it has been placed on the California Register of Big Trees. I was amazed by this fabulous tree, with its massive trunk (nearly 42 feet around in the ’90s), twisted buttress roots, and huge, wide-spreading branches.

Then I went to Australia. Of course, I soon learned that all of California’s eucalyptus trees were also transplants from Down Under. (Southern California was pretty much a desert before people started settling there—and started looking for things in other dry places that might do well in the arid terrain.) I also learned that Moreton Bay Figs were, though still impressive, relatively common on Australia’s eastern seaboard. The trees are named for Moreton Bay in Queensland, but they range along the coast from northern Queensland down through New South Wales.

The Sydney Botanic Garden perches on the shore of the lovely harbor, running pretty much from the parking lot of the Sydney Opera House to the heart of downtown. Strolling through that garden, I saw a much younger, much more modest example of this tree, but still large enough hint at its potential to rival the monster in Santa Barbara, as you can see below.

Moreton Bay Fig

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5 Comments

Filed under Australia, Book, Geography, History, Nature, Travel

5 responses to “Big Fig

  1. Majestic tree, Cynthia. Thanks for showing us the great photo.

    Helen Gallagher

  2. I was just at the University of Western Australia today, admiring in passing, as always, the enormous fig tree they have on campus (Best photo I could find of it here: http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Oceania/Australia/West/Western_Australia/Perth/photo1144239.htm). They really are magnificent trees.

    I never realised that eucalypts were common in California until I visited a couple of years ago and was informed so by locals. Is there a story behind why there are so many gum trees over there? Were they brought over by a particular person or have a particular history?

    • Given the degree of interaction between California and Australia, with gold rushes and general shipping traffic, it appears that different places got their eucalypts from different people at different times—just as the several noteable Moreton Bay figs in California came with different ship’s captains and tourists. However, I did find one site that offers the following information, which places the introduction in the mid-1800s:

      There is some speculation as to who was the first person to plant eucalyptus in California. Most accounts seem to point to W.C. Walker who was the owner of the Golden Gate Nursery in San Francisco located at Fourth and Folsom Streets. It is believed that he planted the first seeds in 1853 from 14 different species. In the August 7, 1857 issue of the California Farmer, Walker ran an advertisement with eucalyptus for sale. At the San Francisco Mechanics Fair of October 1857, he exhibited three different varieties of eucalyptus. One can conclude that without question, Walker was involved early in the propagation of eucalyptus in California.

      Dr. H.H. Behr of San Francisco, who was a German native and a friend of Alexander Humboldt, had an interest in eucalyptus which he spoke of often. He had been to Australia twice, where as a botanist he worked with the renowned Australian eucalyptologist Baron von Mueller. With such an association, it has been generally concluded that he either brought eucalyptus seeds from Australia to California or had them sent to him. Dr. Behr may in turn have given them to fellow San Franciscan Walker for care and nurture at his nursery. Nevertheless, California had a resident expert living in San Francisco, in the person of Dr. Behr, who undoubtedly urged the experimentation of eucalyptus.

      Looking for real hard evidence, H.M. Butterfield did find in1935 an 1858-1859 Golden Gate Nursery Catalog at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. It listed eucalyptus species as follows:
      Eucalyptus Resinfera (Aus.)– Splendid weeping forest tree. 60 feet. $10.00
      ” Argentea ” — Argentea foliage 20 feet. $10.00
      ” Augustifolia ” — dwarf 5 feet $ 5.00

      Also noted in the catalog is a list of seeds received from M. Guilfoyle of Sydney, September 15, 1859. These species were robusta, iron bark, blue gum, longifolia, nigra, and globosa (globulus?).

      Maybe it was Captain Robert H. Waterman who planted the first eucalyptus seeds in California? In a biography of this clipper ship captain, entitled That Fabulous Captain, one finds that Waterman bought land in Suisun Valley for his retirement and planted eucalyptus in 1853. He apparently commissioned an ex-first mate to bring eucalyptus seed to him from Australia. Waterman not only planted seed on his ranch, he gave some to his neighbors as well. The blue gums currently in the area are felt to be connected with these early plantings.

      Here’s the link to the full article: http://library.csustan.edu/bsantos/section1.htm

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