The Monterey cypress is one of the worst trees for Southern California.
  • The Monterey cypress is one of the worst trees for Southern California.
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The Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) is an evergreen conifer with heavy masses of tiny, scalelike leaves and round cones roughly an inch and a half in diameter that tend to hang onto branches for many years. Conifers, of course, are members of a class of trees and shrubs that have needle-like or scalelike leaves, generally carry their seeds in cones, and are usually evergreen. (Pines, spruces, cedars, redwood trees, junipers, and araucarias are among other conifers familiar to local gardeners.) In gardens, the Monterey cypress tree grows rapidly in pyramidal form to 40 feet or more, then slowly expands in girth, drops its lower branches, and takes on a picturesque shape. Fine old specimens are as impressive as the fabled Cedars of Lebanon. On the Monterey peninsula, where these trees are native, some venerable individuals have survived hundreds of years, protected from hot weather by coastal fog and whipped by the ocean wind into tortured shapes.

There was once a Monterey cypress growing near the railroad tracks at the end of a street on top of a cliff in old Del Mar. For a hundred years or more, this tree had thrived.

The Monterey cypress was one of the first nonnative trees brought to San Diego by early settlers. Vintage photos taken in the last half of the 19th Century show specimens that look as if they could be 40 or 50 years old. A photograph taken in 1900 proves that Mission padres used them as windbreaks. Since the 1950s, however, few have been planted here because local nurseries stopped carrying them. Not undone by this, the Monterey cypress seeds itself like mad, and many seedling cypresses make it into adulthood. Years ago my house was surrounded by a grove of these trees—and a great deal of bare ground due to their invasive roots. Cypress trees came up by the dozens in my garden. Almost all of the cypresses in Southern California got their start like this and can trace their ancestry to the original trees planted by early settlers. A few old historic trees still exist, but most have been killed due to widespread misunderstanding of their characteristics.

As a matter of fact, the Monterey cypress is one of the worst trees for Southern California. It drips needles and sticky sap, is prone to beetles and fungus, and its roots are so invasive it’s difficult or impossible to garden under. Books blithely list it as drought resistant, but without water it’s a sick and scruffy tree. If one comes up from seed, think of it as a weed. Quick! Pull it up by the roots before you fall in love with it. Luckily, you can’t buy one. Why write about it, then? Because Monterey cypress trees are like some people. Their faults drive you crazy, but you love them anyway.

Let me give you an example. A few years ago I happened to phone a friend who lives near the cliffs in Del Mar. By the sound of her voice I thought she had a cold, then I realized she was crying. “It’s so sad,” she sobbed. “And I’m spitting mad!” My imagination went into high gear. (Divorce or worse!) “Whatever’s happened?” “Nothing that awful,” my friend managed. “But it does mean a lot to me. It’s about a tree. I mean, it was a tree.” “Thank God,” I breathed, “but tell me about it.” So she did, soon stopped crying, and began to laugh. “Forgive me,” she begged. But there was nothing to forgive. After I’d heard her story, I wanted to cry too.

Here’s what happened. There was once a Monterey cypress growing near the railroad tracks at the end of a street on top of a cliff in old Del Mar. For a hundred years or more, this tree had thrived in pristine grandeur unmolested by people who thought they knew what was good for it As the years ticked by, it took on a lovely windblown shape with a thick and twisted trunk. When its lower branches were no longer necessary, the old tree let them die. Winter winds twisted them loose and buffeted them to the ground. Eventually only three of the lower branches still hung on. They grew almost as thick and tall as the main trunk and sloped gracefully to the northeast, as if the tree were sailing before the wind, spinnakers aloft.

By the time my friend and her husband bought their home in Del Mar, the rounded crown of this old cypress tree was completely covered with healthy green foliage. But hidden inside its verdant head was a sort of upside-down nest of dead branches, twigs, leaves, and debris. Old stuff had simply died and collected there. You could run under it and stay dry through a cloudburst But, other than one or two broken branches that hung down from the outer edges, none of this internal dead growth showed from the outside. My friend loved that tree. She admired it when she came home from work and turned in to her drive. She enjoyed its silhouette against the sea. On summer evenings, she and her husband used to walk down toward her special tree and chat about their day. And as they shared their experiences, they also shared one unspoken thought “How beautiful is that tree!”

Then tragedy struck. New owners bought the house at the bottom of the road and wanted to trim off the dead growth. That would have been okay, but the young man from the pruning company said, “While you’re about it, why don’t you let us dean it out? Monterey cypress trees are subject to beetle attack and fungus problems. Get rid of all that dirt and debris hidden up there inside the tree; it’ll be much healthier.” Right? Wrong! Nonetheless, the tree was pruned.

A man with ropes, hand tools, and a chain saw got right up inside the cypress and hacked away. He did what his boss told him to; he cleaned it out. He tried to take out dead branches only, but up inside the tree you couldn’t tell the difference; several that fell to the ground had green tips. By evening the tree looked different; a month or two later it began to die. All of a sudden one section of foliage went brown and then another. Every year, the owners had the tree trimmers come back and prune off the limbs that had died.

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