Dec 20, 2010

A Tree Falls At Facebook

Just up the street from me lives the global headquarters of a little Internet startup named Facebook. The company moved into the former Hewlett-Packard digs at 1601 California last year, making some interesting architectural updates but not really touching the landscape. One of the defining features of the 8.5-acre site was a large Valley Oak (Quercus lobata), which unfortunately was surrounded by lawn for decades. It may look nice and clean, but oaks — even the riparian Valley Oak — and lawns simply aren't compatible. The lawn requires far too much water for the oak's liking, and all that shallow irrigation encourages fungus that stresses, weakens and eventually kills the oak.

Well, Sunday a gust of wind brought the inevitable, and around 10:00 a.m. the tree blew over.

Rotten to the core.
The arborists were still hard at work removing the body some six hours later, and I came by just in time to get a good look at the trunk. I was struck by the amount of rot in the heartwood.

That grayish block just right of center? Concrete.
I haven't counted the rings yet, but the arborists and I guessed the tree was at least 80 years old. It's an ignominious end for such a stately specimen; but are we really surprised? Urban trees are subject to all sorts of ecological insults, from incompatible irrigation to soil compaction, pollution, and sheer human ignorance — the arborist pointed out where concrete had been used to fill a void in the trunk, probably 30 years ago (by the way, please never do this).

There were no outward signs of trouble, and I'm really glad that the huge tree came down on a Sunday morning when the site was largely empty of people. But it is a cautionary tale: if you have a special tree on your property, care for it. Also, cherish it. I don't know how much the Facebook folks appreciated this tree, but it would have been the perfect social hub if the social network had simply pulled out that lawn, put in a more compatible landscape, and added a few benches and tables.

And finally, if you've got a specimen like this in your neighborhood, document it: I was surprised by how few photos I could find of this tree. (The first one above is from Google's "street view.") It's a reminder that nothing lasts forever, and some day we'll want to remember the tree that was.


Chookie said...

"The lawn requires too much water"? I assume that means that they were watering the lawn. If the lawn had not been watered, would the oak have lasted longer, do you think?

John said...

In a word, Chookie, yes. However: around these parts, an unwatered lawn can look… uh… how do I put this delicately?… um… dead. Which, of course, is anathema to corporate sensibilities that seem to equate lush expanses of neatly trimmed turf with lush profits.

The heart rot on this oak is so extensive, I have to believe it was in trouble for some time. I haven't found any decent property records, but my guess is the oak was native, a 20-year-old baby when Stanford University leased the property to Hewlett-Packard circa 1962, and H-P surrounded it with lawn. This was common practice in the day, even by iconic landscape designers such as Thomas Church. As those properties are renovated by modern designers, the lawns are pulled back from the oaks' driplines, and more-appropriate native plantings are installed (although, as with the H-P/Facebook oak, the damage already may be done).

My favorite reference for working with existing specimens such as the oak is Designing California Native Gardens, by Alrie Middlebrook and Glenn Keator. Their method begins with identifying the plant community that typically would grow alongside the specimen in nature, then replicating that in a "man-made" garden. It's not foolproof, and a skilled designer's eye certainly is required to translate this method into a contemporary landscape that includes non-natives (especially a corporate one, that needs to satisfy many more criteria than just appearance). But it's a great start for those of us trying to keep our native specimens around for as long as possible.