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.