La La Landscapes: A Historic Moreton Bay Fig Tree in the Plaza Falls

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There are many reasons why trees are such vital parts of most landscapes.  They provide practical and useful fruits and nuts in some cases, shade and cooling for people and structures in others.  Trees have an aesthetic quality to them, whether it is the color, texture and shape of the leaves, the graceful curve of their branches, or the dramatic spreading of roots.

Unfortunately, like all other living things, they have a life span with some trees able to live for many centuries and others for just mere decades.  They also have a host of threats, be they pests, air pollution, human needs and wants, or climate change.  In fact, an array of these have led to assertions that our tree population will be dramatically reduced in coming decades, both in urban planted settings and in natural ones.  How we adapt to these changes will be intriguing to see.

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An early 1870s stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection showing the Plaza, including the Pico House hotel and La Merced Theatre at the right, before plantings were added, including Moreton Bay figs donated by Elijah H. Workman.

At the Homestead, we’ve had some problems with trees on site, as well.  A sycamore planted near the museum’s Gallery and Water Tower was infested with bark beetles and had to be cut down, though new shoots are emerging from the root system.  On the Pío Pico Memorial Walkway leading to the El Campo Santo cemetery, rows of stately Chinese elms lining the brick and concrete walk started to fall recently, leading the City of Industry to embark on a months-long program, still underway, of removal and replacement with Southern oaks.  Sadly, the shade provided for events and other uses will go away for some years as the oaks grow to maturity.

Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Plaza, the center of the historic core of the city, lost one of the Moreton Bay fig trees that were planted there way back in 1875.  The massive tree collapsed during a public event, but, fortunately, it fell away from the crowd and landed on the outside of the Plaza so that no one was injured or killed.

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A circa 1880s stereographic photo, also from the museum’s holdings, showing a portion of the Plaza, with the Pico House hotel at upper left.  The Moreton Bay fig that toppled over on Saturday may be the tree above the second sculpted shrub from the right at the center of the image.

The Moreton Bay and its remaining siblings were planted by Elijah H. Workman (1835-1906), a nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman.  Elijah was among a number of enthusiastic horticulturists and he was well known in Los Angeles for his remarkable gardens and experimental plantings.  This was primarily when he lived on a ten-acre parcel on Main Street at Tenth Street, in what is now a gritty commercial/industrial area, but, in his day, the site was filled with a staggering array of plants.  A post on this blog was written based on an 1870s photograph in the Homestead’s collection showing Workman’s ranch and, in the distance, the growing town of Los Angeles.

Elijah spent his later years in Boyle Heights and, though his spread there was considerably smaller, he continued his avid interests in gardening.  He not only planted the Moreton Bay figs at the Plaza, but was also credited with deep involvement at Central Park, also known as Sixth Street Park, changed to Pershing Square after the conclusion of the First World War and in honor of American Expeditionary Force General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.

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An obituary of Elijah H. Workman, including mention of his work with the Plaza and Central Park, now Pershing Square, Los Angeles Herald, 18 July 1906.

As the Los Angeles Herald observed in its obituary of Workman on 18 July 1906:

During the time of his public office [basically mid-1860s through mid-1870s], Mr. Workman was active in laying out public parks and the Central park of today stands as a monument largely to his energetic work.  He planted a large number of seedlings which are now the mammoth trees of the park, many of which he had sent from Missouri [where he was born and lived for a few years in the 1860s].  The Plaza park also shared in his endeavors where he also planted trees.

This avid interest in public parks was also shared by his brother William H. Workman (1839-1918), whose involvement in local politics involved several terms on the City Council, a two-year term in 1887-88 as mayor during the famed Boom of the 1880s, several years service on the city’s Parks Commission, and six years as city treasurer during the first decade of the 20th century.

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Elijah Hook Workman (1835-1906) in a photograph from the 1860s about the time Central Park (Pershing Square) was created and several years before he planted the Moreton Bay fig trees at the Plaza.

William H. was involved in the development of several parks during his years in public service and his best-known project was donating two-thirds of Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, a real showpiece, as were many of the early parks in the city.  Named for Workman’s friend and business associate, Edward Hollenbeck, who died in 1885, the park also was constituted of a third of the land donated by Hollenbeck’s widow, Elizabeth.

The Moreton Bay fig tree that fell over on Saturday (note the Pico House at the left).  Courtesy of Dave McMenamin of Las Angelitas del Pueblo.

It is sad to see mature trees die, whether through disease, storms, or old age, and obviously it remains to be seen what can be discovered about the death of the magnificent Moreton Bay fig planted by Elijah Workman and which stood for over 140 years in the Plaza.  It is very fortunate, however, that it toppled away from people during an event.

Here is a very interesting article by Nathan Masters on local and historic Moreton Bay figs.


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