At 8 a.m. on a cool Wednesday morning in fall, park gardeners keep to the edges of the main thruways so the early-morning joggers can maintain their speed through the park’s heart from Sixth Avenue to Park Boulevard. But while gardeners garden and joggers jog, a smattering of tourists wander in and out of the covered walkways around the Plaza de Panama gripping the straps of their backpacks while they wait for the museums to open. They must not know that Balboa Park’s museums open at 10 on weekdays.
1549 El Prado, Balboa Park
For the sake of these waiting wanderers, and for the residents and return visitors looking for another park experience, I enlisted the help of some knowledgeable local folks to create a list of the top ten trees in Balboa Park, which are accessible at any hour. (Although, be advised that there’s a reason city park rangers wear bulletproof vests and carry guns.)
One thing to know before reading on is that of the 400-plus species growing in the park, there are far more than ten spectacular, interesting, important, or historical trees, including 25 or 30 types that historically have been known to live 1000 years.
“At a certain point, when the buildings have crumbled and all the people are gone, some of these plants could be only halfway through their lives,” says Kim Duclo, a longtime city park ranger.
Besides old trees, the park is home to some rare trees, some bizarre trees, and some beautifully ordinary trees, so the number of possible top-ten lists is infinite.
1. The great eight
Canary Island pines, Marston House
Our tour begins as you enter the grounds of the Marston House Museum at Seventh and Upas, near Balboa Park’s far northwest corner. Immediately after you cross into the grounds, take ten steps and crank your neck back to look all the way up to the tops of the eight Canary Island pines (Pinus canariensis) that grow on either side of the walkway.
If the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, the dark green pine needles at the top will catch the light and sparkle. These evergreen trees are native to the Canary Islands of Spain and have a fissured red-brown bark that looks almost like puzzle pieces. They are huge and awe-inspiring. According to Kim, these eight evergreens were planted somewhere around March/April of 1906, and the tallest of them is approaching 120 feet. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in September, I catch a man named Ted Bruno walking past this small grove with a piece of pizza in each hand, and I ask him to pick a favorite of the eight to be included in the list. He looks up, looks around, and chews his pizza, contemplating the question. Finally he says, “If they’re part of the same group, I think we should favor them all.” And so we shall. This group, then, is the first tree on our list.
Gandalf Australian tea tree. Marston House
From the Canary Island pines, stay on the paved walkway, take a few steps toward the house, and look for the low-growing, gnarly tree on the left. This Australian tea tree warrants a history lesson from Kim, who tells stories of scurvy (caused by vitamin C deficiency) for the Europeans on Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery in the South Pacific. Somewhere along the way, they learned that if you boiled the leaves of the Australian tea tree, you could make a tea with a high vitamin C content to ward off the disease. Considered a shrub or multi-trunk tree, the Leptospermum laevigatum has what’s called a prostrate growth habit whereby the twisty trunks grow nearly horizontal along the ground and occasionally set down roots where the limb sits. The low, wide canopy of this particular tree (which Kim says was likely planted by Balboa Park’s godmother Kate Sessions around 1906) provides a nook to escape the world for a while.
“What I love about this is its crazy, twisty, gnarled look,” Kim says on a cloudy afternoon in late August. “I don’t know whether it looks like it’s from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.”
A month later, I meet a man named Robert Gill who happens to be wandering the Marston House grounds drinking a bottle of water and “looking for inspiration.” When I ask him to give the tree a name based on either Harry or Lord, he chooses “Gandalf.”
Moreton Bay fig, Palm Canyon
From the Marston House grounds, head south on the paved path that runs parallel to Balboa Drive (itself parallel to Sixth Avenue) and make your way toward El Prado (Laurel Street). Along the way, you’ll spot a couple of homeless encampments, a construction worker or two resting in the shade on a lunch break, and maybe a speed-walker. After you pass Redwood Circle (where many of the eponymous trees are dying), the Trees for Health Garden, and the Lawn Bowling lawn, turn left onto Cabrillo Bridge. Cross the bridge, pass the Museum of Man, and when you get to Alcazar Garden turn right and head for the parking lot on the other side of the maze of low hedges. Feel free to stop and chat with one of the plein air painters that often work in this spot.
Cross the parking lot and head for the wooden bridge that crosses Palm Canyon. You’ll be walking toward the Organ Pavilion whose whiteness you can glimpse through the foliage ahead. Once you’re on the wooden platform, you’ll see three giant tree trunks directly on your right. Continue walking toward the steps that lead down into Palm Canyon and when you reach them, turn around to look at the Moreton Bay fig tree (Ficus macrophylla) whose massive root structure extends down into the canyon. I have named her Abbey because her height and elegance, and her flying buttress roots, call to mind Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame, and other famous Gothic cathedrals.