By Nancy Carol Carter

The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego History Center Quarterly
Spring 2017, Volume 63, Number 3+4

The signs of illness and decline were unmistakable. Specialists were summoned. Concern mounted. After a full examination, surgery was recommended, despite the advanced age of the patient. Post-operative treatment would continue with an infusion of fluid and nutrients. A more protective environment was deemed essential. Visitors looked on anxiously and hoped for a full recovery.

In 1988 Balboa Park’s largest Moreton Bay Fig tree1 was sick and dying. It was ailing from a surfeit of public attention and too little breathing room. This tree was one of the park’s botanical treasures and a public favorite, but its branches had brown tips, its foliage was thin and yellowed, and it showed little new growth.2 Restorative actions begun in 1989 included a trimming of branches and deep soil aeration. Fertilizer, soil amendments and mulch were added, along with generous irrigation. More oxygen, water and nutrients provided a new lease on life for the Moreton Bay Fig, demonstrated by the appearance of fresh leaves and, in time, a growth spurt. The beloved 75-year-old tree3 began to recover its health, but it was one additional corrective that brought this botanical giant into a new century of life in Balboa Park: a protective fence was installed around the tree on October 9, 1989.4

In every park or large arboretum, some trees die every year. In the very dry years between 2010 and 2016, it is estimated that 1,500 trees or an average of 300 per year died in Balboa Park. Few of these trees received life support; limitations of budget and park personnel understandably prevent ministrations to every distressed tree. Among all the trees in the park, including others of the same species, why has the Moreton Bay Fig tree near the San Diego Museum of Natural History received extraordinary care and nursing?

Taken one month after the Moreton Bay Fig was enclosed in a protective fence, this 1989 photograph shows a loss of leaf cover and the thinned branches of a tree in distress. Courtesy San Diego Park and Recreation Department.

This article explores the history of Balboa Park’s oldest Moreton Bay Fig tree, a silent witness to the growth and development of San Diego. Among the few trees remaining in Balboa Park as legacies of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, it is the largest and most celebrated. In its lifetime and near presence, young people of several generations have trained for and recovered from two world wars. While it grew and aged, San Diego became a major American city. A cultural mecca grew up around the tree and Balboa Park gained international recognition among urban parks. The survival of the tree owes much to its place in San Diego cultural memory and to efforts of Balboa Park horticulturalists.

The Power of Trees

Trees can transcend their botanical state and become, by societal agreement, symbols of something else (an icon). They can be invested with spiritual significance and serve as living totems. The supernatural reverence of humans for trees has its origins in the early Stone Age. Over time, people began ascribing importance, power and sacredness to certain trees.5 Gingkos, for example, have for thousands of years been grown in temple courtyards across China and Japan. The Bo tree became revered as the Sacred Fig due to its association with the enlightenment of the Buddha. Graveyards in England are almost always planted with one or more yew trees, a tradition flowing from a Celtic and Anglo-Saxon connection of the long-lived yew with eternal life. Across Germany and Eastern Europe, a tradition of reverence for the Linden tree predates Christian times. Among other properties, the Linden was believed to promote justice so early dispute resolution occurred under its branches.6 The tree is the national emblem of the Czech Republic.7 An annual falling of cherry blossoms has gently reminded the Japanese people that life is beautiful, fragile, and short in a shared cultural understanding stretching back twelve centuries.

Trees may also be acknowledged as witnesses to history. These “witness trees” have a cultural association with a remembered person or event. England has a Magna Carta Yew, a 2,500-year-old tree that was growing at Runnymede when Magna Carta was signed there 800 years ago. In the United States, trees that were growing on Civil War battlefields when the fighting occurred are still thriving. The Andrew Jackson Southern Magnolia tree has witnessed activities from the White

One of three interpretive signs created in 2004 for display around the Moreton Bay Fig, this sign described
the tree as being 80 feet tall, with a canopy 130 feet wide. The tree had been growing in Balboa Park for 89
years. Courtesy San Diego Park and Recreation Department.

House lawn since the 1830s. Other trees have come to prominence by surviving a disaster. A badly damaged Bradford Pear tree regained its health after the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, and a 250-year-old “miracle pine” was still standing in a Japanese town after a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.8 Texas has enough historically important trees to fill a recently published book.9

Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, has explained the importance of witness trees: “When we have something that is living—like a tree—and the tree was there for an event, it becomes a portal or a lifeway.”10 While these silent observers to history cannot speak, they do communicate. Human beings are strongly drawn to these living entities as a way of connecting with people and events outside their own experience. The past seems closer in the presence of a witness tree.

Southern California has many such trees. A prominent one is the California Pepper tree at Mission San Luis Rey de Francía, planted in 1830 and the oldest of the species in the state. The tree dates to a time when the mission stood alone and was fully operational. It has lived through the secularization of the missions, the United States’s conquest of the land upon which it grows, the creation of the State of California, and the gradual deterioration of the surrounding mission buildings. The tree survived to the twentieth century when the Landmarks Club of Southern California began the movement to preserve and rebuild historic missions. It is celebrated today at the restored San Luis Rey Mission as a living link to almost two hundred years of history.11

Balboa Park’s oldest Moreton Bay Fig tree has its own story to tell. It is deemed venerable—that is, worthy of respect—because it is old. Advanced age also means that the tree is big. In fact, it is outsized, having grown to be multiple times larger than most other trees.12 The size of this tree species sets it apart and restricts where it can be grown, making it uncommon. Local residential areas are dotted with many of the same trees grown in Balboa Park, but not the potentially mammoth Moreton Bay Fig.13

Mission viewed from west through arch with historic pepper tree. Photo courtesy Shelley Hayes Caron.

In addition to being larger than other trees, this fig has curious natural adaptions that make it more interesting than many other species. Its light gray above-ground buttress roots are a living and growing sculpture. They are an art of nature with a purpose. Just as flying buttresses help to hold up the high walls of a cathedral, the Moreton Bay’s buttress roots help to stabilize and support the tall trunk. Other vital support comes from descending aerial roots. When these roots reach the ground they grow into strong props for heavy branches.

This tree owes its habit of long life to family origins. It is a species native to Australia’s eastern shore, growing on the lands surrounding Moreton Bay, known for its clear waters and ecological richness. Eight species of whales populate the water, along with two kinds of dolphins. The area’s protected marshes, wetlands and waterways support scores of bird species. The bay was named by Captain James Cook during his 1770 expedition to the South Seas and honors a distinguished Scottish patron of science, James Douglas, fourteenth earl of Morton, often referred to as Lord Morton. An “e” was misprinted into Morton’s name in the first published account of Cook’s voyage and the mistake persisted, with the result that Australia has a bay called Moreton and an eponymous native fig tree.

The tree was first grown in California from Australian seed imported in 1859 by San Francisco nursery owner William C. Walker (1814-1871) who was experimenting with several Australian plants.14 Moreton Bay Figs were tested in San Diego County as early as 187215 but were still a rare species in Southern California when one was planted on the Panama-California Exposition grounds in 1915.

Growing Up in an English Garden

Balboa Park’s first Moreton Bay Fig tree was added to a formal English-style garden located next to the Southern California Counties building that stood at the approximate location of the current Museum of Natural History. The Southern California building exhibited goods from seven Southern California counties: Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura. The coalition also sponsored the model farm and citrus orchard at the 1915 exposition.

The rapid growth habit of the Moreton Bay Fig species is captured in this pre-1925 photograph showing the still extant Southern California Counties Building constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. ©SDHC #8125-11.

A garden of formal English style was an incongruous adjunct to the Southern California Counties exhibit, as was the unpredictable Australian native added to the stylized garden. Inspired by London’s Kew Gardens, there were ten formal flowerbeds each surrounded by a wide band of mown lawn and enclosed by low clipped box hedges.16 Massed plantings of flowers were at the center. Another section of the large garden had irregular shaped planting areas filled with roses. Various trees, shrubs and specimen plants arranged near the building completed the garden. Generous pathways encouraged visitors to stroll among the everchanging floral displays.

Captain Francis Edward Gray, a well-known Los Angeles horticulturist, designed the formal garden.17 It is doubtful that Gray specified the planting of this fig tree as it was incompatible with his garden design. It was tucked into the corner of one of the formal flower beds by someone who surely was unaware of its fast-growing habit.18 The small, dark-leafed tree can be spotted in photographs and tinted postcards from the Panama-California Exposition. A list of exposition plants published in the 1915 Official Guidebook of the Panama-California Exposition includes the tree’s botanical name, Ficus macrophylla, but details of its size and supplier are not clearly documented.19

The Southern California Counties English garden lasted for a surprisingly long time, considering its fussy design and maintenance requirements. The Moreton Bay Fig’s growth and eventual dominance of its space can be traced in photographs of the garden. It is captured in an undated photograph, taken between 1915 and 1925.20 In this photograph, the robust Moreton Bay Fig has shot up in height and the garden beds still have neatly clipped box hedging. A 1918 aerial photograph shows newly constructed U.S. Navy buildings in the park and gives a good view of the Moreton Bay Fig within the garden. The thriving rows of trees in the model citrus orchard from 1915 curve across what is today the Spanish Village.

Another aerial photograph taken in September 1934 captures the much larger fig tree and an almost denuded model citrus orchard (the Spanish Village would be built in 1935).

An aerial photograph taken September 30, 1934, captures the newly completed Museum of Natural History building, the formal garden and Moreton Bay Fig tree behind the building, and the curved grounds of the
almost denuded model citrus orchard, future home of the Spanish Village Art Center. ©SDHC Erickson 9581.

Almost twenty years after its creation, the English garden of 1915 was still maintained, each bed showing a surrounding of dark hedging. The new Museum of Natural History building, completed in 1933, is center front in the photograph.

During the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935-36, the English garden was invaded for exhibit space. Three temporary installations were placed along the west side of the garden: the Life Building, a model of Boulder Dam, and the Shell Oil Information Service Headquarters. In a May 1935 photograph showing the temporary exhibits, the Moreton Bay Fig tree is dominating the garden bed into which it was first planted. In 1958, The San Diego Union published a photograph of the ever-growing tree. The clipped hedges around flower beds, as specified in the original 1915 design, are still a garden feature and clearly visible.21

The last sound documentation of the original English garden is a 1961 Museum of Natural History publication describing trees around the museum.22 It includes a diagram of the garden holding the Moreton Bay Fig tree. The diagram closely matches the original 1915 garden layout shown on a PanamaCalifornia Exposition map.

The further history of the Southern California Counties formal garden is not well documented, but by one account it was retained as a Balboa Park feature until the early 1970s.23 By then, the Moreton Bay Fig was dominating the entire area into which it had been planted, a looming presence as it neared fifty years of growth. Its spreading roots were interfering with attempts to maintain the 1915 walkways and formal beds. When the roses, neatly trimmed hedges and abundant flower beds of the English garden were abandoned in favor of a plain grass lawn, the Moreton Bay Fig tree was fortunately found to be worth retaining—the only survivor of the Southern California Counties garden. It was already a favorite Balboa Park specimen tree and recognized as a tangible link to the time when Balboa Park was first developed on a large scale in readiness to celebrate the 1915 opening of the Panama Canal.

Crises and Survival

When the Moreton Bay Fig tree showed signs of a serious decline in 1988, a period of more active monitoring and increased care for the aging tree was launched. At crisis points ever since, a team of Balboa Park horticulture staff and outside consultants have pooled their expertise to arrive at a diagnosis and implement a treatment plan. The fig tree has been returned to a healthy condition after each intervention.

When the Moreton Bay tree began to look stressed and dangerously unhealthy in 1988, the major cause was years of foot traffic that compacted the earth over the tree’s sensitive

During the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park, the west side of the English garden was used as temporary exhibit space for the Life Building, a model of Boulder Dam and the Shell Oil Company building with its distinctive large white shell façade. ©SDHC UT #7748.

root system, reducing the tree’s ability to absorb oxygen, moisture, and nutrients. Additionally, the tree’s natural growth habit of producing descending aerial roots had been thwarted by a dry climate and aspiring Tarzans who broke hanging roots before they attached to the ground to support and nourish the tree. Damage also had been inflicted by decades of tree climbers and carvers. Abrading or cutting into the tree’s notably thin bark causes a drying of the substructure that can eventually kill branches. No one climber or knife cut could harm the tree, but thousands of incursions over many years exacted a cumulative toll.

In addition to treatments that aerated the surrounding soil and added water, fertilizer and mulch, it was determined that the tree’s roots needed the protection of a fence in this busy area of the park. Balboa Park staff were aware that fencing the tree would be unpopular. Its widespread canopy created a shady haven for resting and picnics. Many Balboa Park employees regularly enjoyed their lunch while sitting on a favorite low branch. Every year hundreds of San Diegans climbed in this tree and played among its projecting buttress roots. There was something magical about bringing children to the very same tree in which the parents had played and watching the fascination and discovery of a new generation. Personal connections with this tree wound through San Diego’s civic memory and folk culture. Still, protection of the tree and its root system was an indispensable part of the Moreton Bay Fig recovery plan. For the long-term health of the tree, people had to be kept at a distance.

In anticipation of an outcry, public officials were told in advance of the fence installation. The City Manager’s Office notified the mayor and city council of the deteriorating condition of the tree and alerted them to the placement of a protective green vinyl coated chain-link fence. The circular fence, 4-feet high, was to extend 50 feet out from the tree trunk. A possibility of eventually removing the fence was mentioned, depending on the recovery of the tree.24

Local newspapers helped to prepare the general public for the October 1989 fence installation. The Evening Tribune described the tree’s distress and warned that “soon there will be no playing, picnicking, or relaxing under the graceful umbrellalike branches of the Moreton Bay Fig tree near the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.”25 A hard-hitting San Diego Union writer justified the fencing by bluntly stating that visitors were “crushing the tree to death” and treating it with “inhumanity” by carving names and obscenities into the bark.26

Although dramatic improvement was seen after the prescribed course of treatment,27 permanent fencing was deemed advisable to ensure the continuing viability of the Moreton Bay Fig. After nine years of good health, the tree was again negatively affected by troublesome soil compaction all around the fence perimeter. Before the affliction became worse, the protected area was enlarged in 1998 and a new course of soil aeration and amendment, fertilizer, and extra watering was undertaken. The rebuilt fence encompassed an additional ten feet in all directions, or sixty feet from the tree’s trunk.28

A major construction project became the next challenge to survival. The planned expansion of the Natural History Museum threatened the Moreton Bay Fig tree in ways that concerned the Park and Recreation Department. The location and width of a pedestrian walkway between the tree and the planned building addition was worrisome.29 Likewise, a proposed grading of the lawn for drainage and access was thought to jeopardize the health of the tree. Worst of all, roots on the tree’s south side would be severed during construction. The walkway plan was reconfigured, but in the opinion of park staff, it was still not in the best interest of the tree. The lawn grading plan was changed. An arborist certified that the tree could withstand the slicing of some roots on the south side of the tree. Park and Recreation staff wanted a consulting arborist to certify that the tree would not be permanently damaged during construction and the posting of a financial bond to guarantee the survival of the Moreton Bay Fig tree for ten years after construction.30

In 2001, the Museum of Natural History opened its 85,000 square feet expansion at the rear of the original 1933 building designed by architect William Templeton Johnson. Visitor traffic around the Moreton Bay Fig was significantly increased by a new museum entrance near the tree.

In late 2003, new signs of distress were seen in the Moreton Bay Fig tree. There was die-back on some branches and dead feeder roots. The tree was defoliating. The symptoms were pronounced on the south side of the tree where roots had been cut during the museum construction. Assertions that the problems resulted from disease, rather than construction damage, were quashed through an analysis by the County of San Diego Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures. While identifying various fungi, nematodes and microorganisms in the tree tissue samples, the plant pathologist concluded that none were harming the tree. “I suspect the problem is most likely due to environmental conditions rather than any single disease organism,” the January 2004 pathology report stated.31

While testing was underway, Park Arborist Paul Sirois sought advice on diagnosing the tree’s ailment and a plan of treatment from experts at the University of California Cooperative Extension program, plant scientists in the Moreton Bay Fig’s native Australia, and a consulting arborist who had not previously assessed the tree. David Shaw of the University Extension service personally inspected the tree. He did not think the tree was diseased, but rather addressed problems of soil compaction and irrigation in his written report.32 After seeing photographs of the tree, a plant scientist from the Australian Botanic Gardens Trust made a strong case for improved protection of the tree. Among Moreton Bay Figs growing in public places in Australia, similar problems and general decline were caused by “root compaction, traffic and neglect.” Foot traffic, he said, has an adverse effect on stressed trees and keeps them from recovering.33

The local consulting arborist noted the concentration of leaf shrinkage and die-off and dead roots on the south side of the tree and speculated that the tree may have been accidentally poisoned by impurities (oil or other toxic liquids) brought into contact with severed tree roots during construction to expand the Museum of Natural History.34

A larger fence enclosing almost the entire lawn around the Moreton Bay Fig was built35 and another aggressive treatment of aeration, fertilizer, soil amendment, mulch, and extra watering was undertaken. This special attention successfully addressed the problems and the tree gradually returned to good health.36 The larger fence was eventually removed, leaving the tree within the 1998 fence and its protective circle, 120 feet in diameter.

The tree had weathered two more health crises after its near-death experience in 1988-89: the minor setback in 1998 and the more serious afflictions of 2003-04.37 Guardians of the tree acted promptly in each instance. The efficacy of the various treatment plans is shown by the robust growth of the Moreton Bay Fig tree and the current vibrancy of this veteran of San Diego’s 1915 Panama-California Exhibition.

A New Chapter for Moreton Bay Fig Viewing?

In July 2017 representatives of the non-profit Friends of Balboa Park announced the organization’s interest in enhancing the setting within which the Moreton Bay Fig tree is growing. Instead of encountering a chain-link fence when approaching the tree, the proposed plan would bring visitors closer to the tree on a wide pedestrian viewing platform, complete with benches and interpretive information. The new platform would wrap part way around the tree and be well elevated above sensitive tree roots on support piers. The concept was compared to the boardwalks that give visitors access to marsh and bog viewing areas in nature parks.

While emphasizing that some protective fencing will still be needed to safeguard the tree, Friends of Balboa Park suggests that their new viewing platform will help visitors feel a closer connection with the tree, as they did before people were fenced out.38

Still in its conceptual stages, the Moreton Bay Fig viewing stand proposal must be shepherded through many levels of Balboa Park and City of San Diego approval and permitting before it can become a reality. A core consideration for Friends of Balboa Park and all concerned in approving the project is the potential effect of this installation on the tree itself. If the viewing platform can be constructed without damaging roots or interfering with irrigation, it may provide beneficial protection of a larger area of the tree’s root system. The enduring problem of soil compaction around the fence perimeter would be mitigated by a viewing platform.

On the other hand, any change in the sensitive habitat area around the Moreton Bay Fig could have unexpected consequences. One park tree expert attributed the 1988-89 health crisis of the tree to the removal of the formal English garden in the 1970s. “That started the problem,” he said, explaining that the formal garden’s walkways and hedging kept people off the tree’s roots.39 While not fully protected in the original garden, the tree trunk stood within a clipped hedge that discouraged climbing and bark carving. When these protections were stripped away, the tree began a slow decline that did not become alarmingly apparent for almost twenty years. The necessity of thinking very long term is a caution and reality that should guide consideration of the proposed viewing platform, but after years of confinement within an unattractive fence, the idea of freeing this worthy centenarian will appeal to many.

A Tree to Cherish

Five generations of San Diegans have known and loved this landmark tree. On top of age, size, and uniqueness, Balboa Park’s largest Moreton Bay Fig tree is valuable. It is an attraction that draws and interests visitors, and is admired and photographed thousands of times every year. The tree also makes a valued environmental contribution by sequestering tons of carbon dioxide and casting its broad shade in an area of urban heat. And finally, with more than 100 years of growth, this tree is irreplaceable at any price.

The Moreton Bay Fig Tree with its protective fence, 2017. Photo by Iris Engstrand.

A more complex explanation for the drive to save this Moreton Bay Fig tree speaks to the interaction of people and trees over millennia and the way that human groups agree upon and coalesce around symbols to represent emotion and memory.40 For some people, trees like Balboa Park’s largest Moreton Bay Fig become invaluable as icons, totems, or witnesses to history. The always recognizable fig tree, a constant in a changing city, became a symbol for San Diego and particularly for the park. “It wouldn’t be Balboa Park if the tree were gone,” one San Diego mother said as she watched her children climb in the big branches before the tree was fenced.41

Although there are individuals who feel both reverence and a spiritual connection to Balboa Park’s Moreton Bay Fig, this species of tree has not moved into the lofty categories of icon or living totem in the broader culture. Yet, this particular Moreton Bay Fig is on a par with other San Diego cultural icons, taking its place alongside the Serra Museum, Old Point Loma Lighthouse, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the Hotel del Coronado and, within Balboa Park, the Pandas, the Botanical Building, and the California Tower.42

The Moreton Bay Fig Tree stands in the open space at the rear entrance to the San Diego Natural HistoryMuseum. Photo by Iris Engstrand.











1.The tree is in the large genus of fig plants. Its botanical name Ficus macrophylla is derived
from the Greek words “makro,” meaning large, and “phyllon,” meaning leaf. The small figs
produced by the tree are edible, but more palatable to birds and animals than to humans. The
tree was first grown in California in 1859 by San Francisco nursery owner William C. Walker
(1814-1871). Elizabeth McClintock, “Trees of Golden Gate Park: 29 Moreton Bay Fig,” Pacific
Horticulture 45, no. 3 (July 1984), 8-9.
2. Balboa Park Horticulturist Kathy Puplava brought in a consulting arborist to advise on the
best treatment for the ailing tree. E. Robert Bichowsky to Kathy Puplava, September 22, 1989,
San Diego Park & Recreation Department Archives, Balboa Park Ranger Kim Duclo Collection
(hereinafter Park Archives).
3. This was the estimate given for the tree’s age in 1989. The tree was planted in 1914 or 1915 on
the grounds of the Panama-California Exposition, held in Balboa Park. Although the age of
the tree when planted has been speculated upon in some sources, it is unknown.
4. Kathy Puplava to E. Robert Bichowsky, September 22, 1989, Park Archives. The cost of the
fence and its installation was $3,500. City of San Diego Purchase Order Number 9925087,
October 30, 1989, Park Archives.
5. Fred Hagender, “Ancient Yew Group,”
(accessed July 30, 2017).
6. Alina-Maria Tenche-Constantinescu,, “The Symbolism of the Linden Tree,” Journal of
Horticulture, Forestry and Biotechnology 19, no. 2 (2015): 237- 242,
237 (accessed August 20, 2017).
7. “Czech Republic Flora and Fauna,”,
(accessed August 20, 2017).
8. David Roos, “‘Witness Trees’ Testify to History, Embody Hope for Visitors,” May 23, 2017,
http://Adventure.Howstuffworks.Com/-Witness-Trees-Testify-History-Hope-Visitors.Htm (accessed
July 31, 2017).
9. Jill Lear and Bill Fowler, Witness Trees of Texas ([Austin]: Witness Tree Press, 2015).
10. Roos, “Witness Trees.”
11. “Old San Luis Rey Historic Features,” (accessed
August 13, 2017).
12. The last official measurement of the tree used in the California Registry of Big Trees was
made in 1996. The tree was 78-feet tall, its canopy was 123-feet across and the girth of the
trunk was 400 inches. A new measurement will be made as part of the 2017-18 Balboa Park
Tree Inventory conducted by the Balboa Park Conservancy.
13. The California Registry of Big Trees uses a point system combining height, canopy width,
and trunk girth to name the largest California tree of each species. At one time, Balboa Park’s
Moreton Bay Fig was listed jointly with a giant specimen growing in downtown Santa Barbara.
San Diego’s tree was taller, but Santa Barbara’s had a wider canopy. In 2013 both were replaced
on the Big Tree Registry by a larger Moreton Bay Fig growing in Glendora. California Registry
of Big Trees, (accessed August 25, 2017).
14. McClintock, “Trees of Golden Gate Park,” 8-9.
15. A tree planted in Spring Valley in 1872 is still thriving. Moreton Bay Figs may have been
planted earlier in San Diego but not survived or planting dates may be unknown. John Blocker,
“Seeing the Forest and the Trees,” California Garden 108, no. 4 (July-August 2017), 8.
16. A January 1916 article describes the English garden of the Southern California Counties building.
The garden’s creator told the author that his design was inspired by London’s Kew
Gardens. G. R. Gorton, “Monthly Excursion Through Exposition Grounds,” California Garden
7, no. 7 (January 1916), 5.
17. The designer of the Southern California Counties garden is an obscure character in the PanamaCalifornia
Exposition historical record, being referred to only as “Capt. Gray.” Once identified
as Francis Edward Gray (c.1844-1929), a leading horticulturist of the day with a colorful life
story, his involvement is understandable. He earned the rank of captain and was wounded in
action during the American Civil War after volunteering with a Massachusetts infantry unit at
age 18. He identified himself as Captain Gray throughout his life. Settling in the Los Angeles
suburb of Alhambra in 1876, he became a successful and widely-known horticulturist. His
Ingleside Floral Company nursery in San Marino specialized in carnations. Gray developed
notable hybrids of canna lilies, gladiola and amaryllis. His roses, grown in greenhouses to
produce cut flowers, were a famous California first. Victoria Padilla, Southern California Gardens
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), 75, 285. A useful profile of Gray, along with
an inflated description of his role as a landscaper of 1915 California exhibitions, appears in
Peggi Ridgway and Jan Works, Sending Flowers to America (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Flower
Market, 2008), 7-8.
18. A 1916 California Garden article noted that one of the Southern California Counties English
garden beds was augmented with a Ficus Australis, undoubtedly a reference to the Moreton
Bay Fig tree, despite the incorrect nomenclature. The Ficus macrophylla was growing in other
San Diego County locations, but was still a rarity when planted in Balboa Park. G. R. Gorton,
California Garden (January 1916), 5.
19. Persistent San Diego stories identifying horticulturist and nursery owner Kate Sessions as
the planter of the tree or its supplier in a five-gallon can are unsubstantiated.
20. The Southern California Counties building is shown, so the photograph was taken before the
building was destroyed by fire in November 1925. Although dated “circa 1915,” the photograph
is obviously later because of the growth shown in the Moreton Bay Fig tree.
21. “Enjoyment of Tree Watching,” The San Diego Union, January 12, 1958, 33.
22. Reid Moran, Trees Around the Museum, Occasional Papers of the San Diego Society of Natural
History, No. 11, (San Diego: San Diego Museum of Natural History, February 1961).
23. Joseph Theskan, “Fence to Help Old Tree Survive,” The Evening Tribune (San Diego), September
14, 1989, B-1.
24. “Moreton Bay Fig Tree in Balboa Park,” The City of San Diego Manager’s Report No. 89-413,
September 1, 1989, Park Archives.
25. Theskan, “Fence to Help Old Tree Survive.”
26. Frank Klimko, “Shady Characters Who Take Root Under Fig Tree Threaten Greenery,” The
San Diego Union, September 15, 1989, B-3.
27. In a brief statement on Balboa Park history, horticulture staffing and park gardens, the Moreton
Bay Fig is listed as “the most popular tree.” It was described as being 64 feet tall with a
spread of 120 feet after recovering from its late 1980s decline. Kathy Puplava, “Balboa Park
Horticulture, Quick Facts,” August 1995, Park Archives.
28. The cost of this larger fence was $3,980. Invoice, South Bay Fence, Inc. to City of San Diego,
September 18, 1998, Park Archives.
29. When the San Diego Museum of Natural History building was extended northward, toward
the Moreton Bay Fig, it was pointed out that the tree roots extended well beyond the fence
around the tree. Some root trimming for the new construction and sidewalk would not be
harmful to the tree, it was stated. Architects Richard Bundy & David Thompson, “San Diego
Natural History Museum Expansion Project, Meeting Notes,” February 18, 1998, Park Archives.
30. Ibid.; City of San Diego Memorandum, Deborah Sharpe to Leisa Lukes, February 11, 1998,
Park Archives.
31. Pat Nolan to Paul Sirois, Specimen for Determination Form, County of San Diego Department
of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, January 9, 2004, Park Archives.
32. Shaw suggested three interventions: a much larger fence to protect the tree, adjustments on
existing sprinklers and active encouragement of aerial root growth. David A. Shaw to Paul
Sirois, March 2, 2004, Park Archives.
33. Brett Sommerell to Paul Sirois, January 6, 2014, Park Archives.
34. Confidential Arborist Report, January 31, 2004, Park Archives.
35. Documents from the supplier show that the fence was 245 feet long and 189 feet wide and
cost almost $15,000. South Bay Fence Job Ticket, January 14, 2004, Park Archives.
36. E. Robert Bichowsky to Paul Sirois, January 8, 2004, Park Archives.
37. The possibility that the big tree could die was made real by the inability to reverse the decline of
a different Moreton Bay Fig tree at the Golden Hill corner of Balboa Park. Despite interventions,
including a protective fence, that magnificent old tree died, root and branch.
38. Julie Stalmer, “Balboa Park’s Moreton Bay Fig—How to Keep the Love,” San Diego Reader,
July 14, 2017,
(accessed July 30, 2017).
39. Karl Schnizier was in charge of tree maintenance for the City of San Diego and had observed
the Morton Bay Fig tree for twenty years. Theskan, “Fence to Help Old Tree Survive.”
40. For a discussion of how humans endow trees with attributes and the close relationship of
humans and trees, see Kim D. Cooper, “Trees and Humankind: Cultural and Psychological
Bindings,” November 1996, (accessed July
30, 2017). Plant life and the human imagination with an emphasis on “cult trees” is explored
in Richard Mabey, The Cabaret of Plants (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015).
41. Frank Klimko, The San Diego Union, September 15, 1989, B-3.
42. In contemporary parlance, the word “icon” has been cheapened by inappropriate applications.
It is used here in the popular meaning of something that is widely recognized and held in
special regard by many people. Joe Queenan, “Icons Aren’t What They Used to Be,” The Wall
Street Journal, July 20, 2009, (accessed July
30, 2017).