• a drawing of an oak tree by a house

      Drawing by Jee-Shaun Wang 2013

      The strong winds and rain in early February brought down tree branches and toppled trees. The heavy weather also brought down an important landmark that was a connection and a witness to our past.

      By Michael Lawrence

      A coastal oak tree on Curtis Street in Alhambra that stood long before the San Gabriel mission was built, crashed in the middle of the night crushing the property owner’s car and a city streetlight.

      The oldest tree in Alhambra was largely unknown to most residents but loved by the owner and neighbors. It had a circumference of 21 feet and branches as big as regular trees. Upon seeing the tree for the first time, one was confronted with an immediate feeling of history and longevity. Longevity is the result of many things including care and love, but a key factor was that this tree was spared the ax.

      Oak trees like the Coastal Live Oak on this property once covered much of the San Gabriel Valley foothills and provided the local population of Gabrielino people with an important part of their diet. The acorns gathered and pounded in mortars produced a nutritious mush that was eaten cold. The oaks were so important to the indigenous communities that they were included in their creation myths.

      With the arrival of the Spanish and later with the growth of Los Angeles in the 1800s, many of the local oaks were cut down to make room for agriculture, and their wood was used for lumber and fuel. Loggers came to the San Gabriel Valley and cut down large areas of oak forest to feed the growing demand for hardwoods.

      The oak survived both the Spanish and the agricultural development that took place in Alhambra in the early days of the San Gabriel Valley. A large avocado farm occupied the area above Alhambra Road before the current housing tract was developed. One can only imagine that the tree was already so big that it provided shade and comfort for workers and thus was spared the ax. With the development of agricultural land into homes, it is a wonder that it survived yet another threat. The home on the property was built around the tree and we can be grateful that the builder found value in leaving the tree to continue.

      a majestic oak tree

      The coastal oak tree on Curtis Street in Alhambra (File Photo – Michael Lawrence)

      The story of the oak cannot be told without Mrs. Dorothy Banbury. I interviewed Dorothy for a previous story about the tree in 2013. Dorothy told me it was love at first sight when she bought the home in 1954. “I was attracted to the home because of the majestic oak tree. The tree was so big at that time that it covered the house and the two adjacent homes. I have loved that tree since I first saw it and it has been a big umbrella over my house for all these years and I have always felt protected by it.” For 60 years, until her death in 2013, she cared for the tree with cables to keep the branches from breaking, regular trimming and treatments for disease.

      The Chung family are the current owners. They, too, fell in love with the tree, and it was the selling point for them to buy this home. They took over the caregiving and made sure the tree had the best of care from a professional tree service. Despite all the care they gave the tree, the rains this year took their toll. The root balls on oak trees are not very deep and when the soil becomes supersaturated with moisture the roots lose their strength and slip through the soil.  The Chung’s are still adjusting to their loss. Many tears were shed, especially by their children.

      This ancient live oak stood tall, solid and strong, rooted in the earth for several centuries. It served as a waypoint for the native tribes in the area, for the early settlers and for me. Every time I passed it as I traveled along Alhambra Road, I looked for it and felt a connection to time and place. Now that it is gone, I have mixed feelings of both sadness and how everything including us as human beings are transient. There are lessons to be learned from trees. Goodbye fallen giant. You had a very long run.

      a toppled tree on top of a car

      This oak survived both the Spanish and the agricultural development that took place in Alhambra in the early days of the San Gabriel Valley. The strong winds and rain in early February brought it down (Photo – Michael Lawrence)

      Michael Lawrence loves to roam the desert and enjoy the company of plants.


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