Something worrying has been happening in the City of Santa Ana: bureaucrats, rushing to spend a $9.3 Million critical maintenance and infrastructure grant from the California State Library “Building Forward” program before the March 31, 2026 completion deadline and Federal Revive Santa Ana funds that must be used by the end of that year, plan to chop down one of Southern California’s most remarkable trees for a hardscape patio remodel.
You know The Parrot Tree if you’ve ever visited the Santa Ana Main Library (Harold Gimeno and Francis Keally, 1959), especially in the late afternoon when its boughs are filled with hundreds of chattering parrots. There’s no shushing them!
Centrally planted in the east patio of the austere mid-century modern building—just out of the left frame in this vintage postcard from the County Archives—The Parrot Tree was recently named the State and National champion Big Tree brown woolly fig (Ficus drupacea). It measures 75 feet high, with a trunk circumference of 207 inches and a crown spread of 85 feet for a total of 303.25 points. Impressive!
Also known as the Mysore fig, this tree uncommon in California is native to Southeast Asia and Northeast Australia, but adaptable to many climates. There’s a famous example in Estero, Florida that shows the spectacular above-ground root system, taller than a person, that develops in a tropical climate. Santa Ana’s tree looks quite different at the base, but up in the boughs, packed with orange-fleshed figs, the parrots can’t tell the difference.
In recent months, rumors have spread about the city’s plan to chop down the tree, sparking considerable alarm. That’s why in the video Richard says the tree is to be replaced by parking, rather than the hardscape patio announced after our visit.
One reason for the rumors is that unlike every other major public works project we’ve tracked, there appears to be absolutely no public record or paper trail. It is frankly bizarre. Just because a municipality is flush with pandemic relief millions, that doesn’t mean it can spend them with no transparency. People have a right to know what’s happening, and why.
And if the answer is that The Parrot Tree needs to die because city staff failed to work quickly enough to spend grant money, and a simple hardscape patio is something that can be completed by the deadline, then maybe the funds should be returned.
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In official statements released late last week on the city website, email newsletter and on Facebook, Santa Ana says a lot of things to justify killing The Parrot Tree. None of them are backed up by the professional arborist’s, engineer’s, preservation architect’s or landscape architect’s reports that you’d expect to see.
We’ve asked for these reports, only to be told they don’t exist. We also were told that The Parrot Tree is two different types of trees growing together, which is not true and which supports no arborist having assessed the tree. So we made a public records request seeking all communications about the tree and library restoration between city staff, elected officials and outside contractors, including landscape architects Terrain Integration and preservation architects Page & Turnbull. The City asked for an extra two weeks to review this material, with a new deadline of September 11, 2023. If they cough up anything substantial, we’ll update the blog post version of this page.
It’s interesting that Santa Ana contends that the tree must die in order to protect the National Register eligible library building, but has not made the effort to landmark the library. People who care about The Parrot Tree, including environmental horticulturist Dr. Donald R. Hodel, have done the work to list it on the Big Tree Registry.
But Don’s efforts don’t stop at designation. He is offering his professional expertise at no cost to help Santa Ana see a greener path forward, one in which The Parrot Tree and historic library building can coexist and we can all enjoy them for generations to come.
If you also care about this beautiful tree and the parrots who eat and socialize in its green canopy, please read Don’s thoughtful rebuttal below, then take a moment to communicate your feelings in an email to the decision makers.
Use your own words, but do include a request that Santa Ana make all possible efforts to preserve the Parrot Tree, incorporate it into the Library’s renovation plans, and protect and provide it with proper care during the renovation. Send your email to: Brian Sternberg, Executive Director of Library Services, email@example.com and cc the City Manager, City Council and us: KRidge@santa-ana.org, eComment@santa-ana.org, firstname.lastname@example.org
Impending Demise of the Old, Rare Brown Woolly Fig and California State Champion Big Tree at the Santa Ana Downtown Main Library
The City of Santa Ana has decided to chop down and remove the old, rare Brown Woolly Fig tree (Ficus drupacea) and California State Champion Big Tree at the Santa Ana Downtown Main Library, all under the guise to “preserve and enhance library facilities and services.” The City claims the tree must be destroyed to “make way for a complete renovation of the library’s east patio, transforming it into a vibrant, welcoming, and accessible community and event space for everyone.” To the contrary, incorporating this tree into the renovation plans would ensure that the City lives up to these claims.
Facts Regarding this Tree and the Library Renovation:
This specimen is rare, very few occur in the United States, and it is the largest of its kind in California. It is listed in the California Big Tree Registry as the State Champion. While larger specimens might exist in tropical Florida and Hawaii, no nationwide registry exists for non-native trees; thus, it is the largest, officially registered tree of its kind in the United States.
This tree, affectionately known as the “Parrot Tree” for the colorful birds that visit it to eat its fruits, provides much-needed, cooling shade for the library and oxygen for us to breathe, helps to mitigate ever-increasing temperatures, capture rainfall, provides shelter and food for birds and other wildlife, greatly softens the otherwise harsh urban setting, and enhances our psychological well-being, all measurable and admirable qualities. Destroying and removing it and replacing it with a smaller tree that would take scores of years, if ever, to provide these same benefits and amenities seems especially shortsighted.
The City has not provided a certified arborist’s report to document and support its claims that the tree’s roots and canopy are damaging the building’s foundation and façade, now or in the future. Even if this threat was real, judicious and careful root and canopy pruning can mitigate such potential damage. While the City’s claim that the “buttressing root system” can reach up to 30 feet in diameter is true for wet tropical locales, it is flatly untrue for arid, subtropical California.
The City’s claim that litter from fruits and leaves is a hazard and will require an increased budget for periodic cleanup is rather weak. All trees produce leaf and fruit litter, so any trees of which the City plans to replant will be subject to the same or similar considerations. Furthermore, most landscape maintenance companies would prefer to be cleaning up fewer, larger leaves and fruits than much more numerous, smaller leaves and fruits. The City also claims that the fruits attract wasps, yet it provides no evidence to support this assertion, such as a biologist’s report identifying the nature and type of wasp; the purported wasp could easily be non-harmful hover flies, which mimic wasps.
The City purports to be “committed to replacing every tree in the space,” yet has not provided a detailed landscape plan, including tree species, quantity, and spacing, to document and support this assertion.
That the City does not consider the tree historical and worthy of preservation is questionable. The City’s definition of historic seems rather narrowly tailored, and would offer no protection for nearly all of Santa Ana’s trees, no matter their age, size, rarity, location, or esthetic quality, in the City’s well known and respected urban forest. The premise that only historic trees can be preserved is shortsighted and discounts the numerous amenities and benefits that trees, especially old, large, rare and strategically placed specimens, bring to the table.
The tree’s significant location adjacent to the main center of learning and enlightenment in Santa Ana, make its destruction all the more harmful and unnecessary. It could easily and less expensively be incorporated into the City’s plans for the library renovation. Removing the concrete surrounding the tree and replacing it with one of a multitude of modern, technologically advanced, permeable surfaces along with the amphitheater type seating would create an instant, outdoor, cool, green, leafy, and unique educational and event meeting venue. To destroy it is illogical and contrary to the best interests of the citizens of Santa Ana and society as a whole.
Santa Ana prides itself on being part of the Tree City USA program, and there are few trees as wonderful as the one the parrots have made their own.
That’s why we are making an incursion into Orange County preservation matters to help protect it, and to give tools to locals who are getting the runaround from city leaders who need to stop telling them what they plan to do, and start showing why they think it’s necessary.
If you’d like to know about other Southern California trees we’ve been advocating for with Don Hodel, please visit our pages for Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak, The Eagle Tree, El Pino and the 1888 Bunya Bunya at Rancho Los Amigos, and the webinar Saving the Sentinel Trees on Old Bunker Hill, Then and Now.
Just one more thing: according to local cemetery historian Patricia M. Boardman, the library is built on top of a pioneer cemetery (see page 84). Bodies were supposed to be moved to the new Santa Ana Cemetery in 1870, but it is common in disinterments for some people, or parts, to be left behind. The possible presence of human remains complicates any work that might be done in the patio area, and may well make it impossible to complete any renovation work before the grant deadline expires. So that’s one more good reason to save The Parrot Tree!
yours for Los Angeles,
Kim & Richard
Psst… If you’d like to support our efforts to be the voice of places worth preserving, we have a tip jar and a subscriber edition of this newsletter, vintage Los Angeles webinars available to stream, in-person tours and a souvenir shop you can browse in. We’ve also got recommended reading bookshelves on Amazon and the Bookshop indie bookstore site. And did you know we offer private versions of our walking and bus tours for groups big or small? Or just share this link with other people who care.
UPCOMING BUS & WALKING TOURS
• Pasadena Confidential Crime Bus Tour (Sat. 9/9) • Franklin Village Old Hollywood Walking Tour (Sat. 9/16) • University Park Walking Tour (Sat. 9/23) • Weird West Adams Crime Bus Tour (Sat. 9/30) • Eastside Babylon Crime Bus Tour (Sat. 10/14) • The Birth of Noir: James M. Cain’s Southern California Nightmare Bus Tour (Sat. 10/21) • The Real Black Dahlia Crime Bus Tour (Sat. 10/28) • Evergreen Cemetery, 1877 Walking Tour (Sun. 10/29) • The Run: Gay Downtown History Walking Tour (Sat. 11/4)