Coral trees face neglect, unfavorable weather and disease infestation

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By Kai McNamee

Suffering neglect and disease, Brentwood’s coral trees face an uncertain future. 

On July 10, Brentwood Community Council held a meeting to discuss the fate of the San Vicente Corridor’s Coral trees. The trees, towering above traffic from the boulevard’s median, have suffered from neglect, unfavorable weather and disease infestation. 

According to Lisa Smith, a Master Arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, coral trees are a “high maintenance” species. The trees are fast-growing and suffer from weak wood structure, making them susceptible to collapse unless pruned regularly. Over-pruning, however, causes the trees to “sunburn.” Some in the community have called the coral tree the wrong tree for the median despite the Brentwood’s attachment to the species’ wide canopies and red flowers. 

Tree trimming is paid for by an annual fund, but Los Angeles’ urban forests have been plagued by underfunding. According to a 2018 study conducted by City Plants, a nonprofit dedicated to the planting and maintenance of trees in LA, “urban forest budgets are far below necessary levels.” The study estimated an “increase in $40-$50 million is needed to manage the urban forest at a sustainable level.” 

Furthermore, San Vicente’s coral trees have not been spared by the impacts of California’s recent, record-breaking drought. Between 2011 and 2014, the state experienced the driest years on record. A total of 102 million trees died between 2011 and 2016; 62 million of those died in 2016 alone, according to the US Forest Service. Although coral trees thrive on little water, the drought forced the city to turn off irrigation to the median, posing a problem to future tree upkeep. Coral tree irrigation is further complicated by the salinity of city water, which is higher than that of rainwater.

Compounded with the effects of neglect and unfavorable weather, Brentwood’s coral trees suffer from a fungal infection spread by gophers. Oak Root Fungus is a common plant disease in California that thrives in moist conditions — the fungus has spread through the San Vicente Corridor through gopher damage. 

 This is not the first time the corridor’s future has come to public concern. After they were initially planted in the 1940s, the trees suffered from a lack of care and attention due to limited city funds. By the 1980s, 32 of the 117 trees had been replaced, and three of the trees had been reduced to stumps. The nonprofit SOS Coral Trees was created by Brentwood community members to fundraise for the preservation of the trees. 

To save the trees SOS Coral Trees once called “synonymous with the name Brentwood,” the organization raised and invested $175,000 for regular trimming and watering. 

In 2010, the Brentwood Coral Tree Endowment Fund Campaign (BCTEF) succeeded SOS Coral Trees and raised $350,000 for tree care. BCTEF funds are presently invested in the maintenance of Brentwood’s coral trees. 

The current issues facing Brentwood’s coral trees parallel wider challenges facing Los Angeles’s urban forest. In April, numerous community groups — including urban sustainability non-profit Tree People and the Venice Community Chamber of Commerce co-signed a letter urging Mayor Eric Garcetti and city councilmembers to invest more in developing and maintaining a stronger urban forest. 

Adopted at the beginning of July, the 2019-2020 budget allocated $3 million to maintaining street trees, far below the 2018 City Tree report’s recommendation. 

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