The coral is the official tree of the city of Los Angeles, perhaps
because – like the fame and fortunes found here – it grows quickly but is often short-lived.
The coral tree’s roots are superficial, since it has been known to fall over once it reaches full stature. And like other phenomena that are supposed to represent Los Angeles, it is seldom encountered in the San Fernando Valley.
Reader Carisa Iezza of Thousand Oaks writes: “Could you provide some background and information on the California coral tree? There is a beautiful specimen just up the street from my house, but I’m not too familiar with it.”
Iezza is probably referring to the kaffirboom coral tree, the species most widely grown in Southern California. Like all coral trees, it has a curious yet distinctive presence. It loses its leaves in the winter, revealing bizarre branching patterns, then shows orange-red coxcomb flowers before foliage appears in the spring.
It is cumbersome – with big, bicepped limbs and an indefinable shape. It is native to the milder parts of South Africa and is sensitive to cold, which helps explain why it grows south of the Sepulveda Pass and in Thousand Oaks, but not in the San Fernando Valley. I tried for several years to grow this tree in a frost-protected Woodland Hills location, but it suffered damage in five consecutive winters and finally had to be removed.
The most well-known local stand of kaffirbooms grows in the median strip on San Vicente Boulevard between Brentwood and Santa Monica. Should you happen to drive by, don’t be surprised to see several of these trees in a state of literal collapse, with limbs broken or trunks split.
The wood of this tree is soft and brittle, which makes it easy to cut, but susceptible to breakage, especially when watered during the summer. It has thorns, which is typically a sign of drought tolerance in plants.
It is wise to prune this tree annually to avoid breakage. Make sure that the tree is balanced, that it receives light equally on all sides. I once saw a coral tree growing where it received no southern sun and began leaning toward the north. One day, following a heavy rain, it fell over.
(As a matter of policy, any leaning tree should be drastically pruned or removed. Mature specimens of sycamore, pine and eucalyptus are prone to falling over when growth occurs too much in one direction. Heavy rains can soften the soil to the point that roots are no longer stable. On lopsided evergreens, rapid uptake up water following a winter rain may increase leaf weight, resulting in top heaviness and breakage of tree canopies.)
Other coral trees have bright scarlet flowers and are more tolerant of cold than the kaffirboom. The cockspur coral (Erythrina crist-galli) has been seen, on rare occasions, in the Valley. It may suffer considerable dieback during the winter, even to the ground, yet pushes out new growth in the spring, which is followed by unique flowers.
Shirley Farrell of Woodland Hills asks: “How can I keep the squirrels
from getting more of my tangerines and oranges than I get?”
You can get a Hav-a-Hart squirrel trap at Green Thumb Nursery in Canoga Park. This trap captures the animal alive, at which point you can drive up into the hills and let him go.
And, finally, a North Hollywood woman writes the following: “You’ve never talked about people who have small gardening businesses. Although I think our company does high-quality work, my husband and I live a life of near poverty and constant harassment from our customers. Worst of all, my husband is so busy satisfying our customers that he has completely neglected our own garden. It’s a mess! Also, my husband tracks in mud and always has dirt under his fingernails. He’s a smart guy and should become an attorney. Perhaps a few words from you could persuade him to make a career change.”
Gardening is the most honorable profession on earth. In the words of an old Russian proverb: “Dirty hands – but a clean heart.” Yes, your husband tracks in mud. But isn’t this better than slinging it in a courtroom? Would you really be happier if your husband were an attorney? Perhaps you would be richer, and able to hire a fancy gardening service, but think of those long hours attorneys must toil. Gardeners, at least, cannot work after it gets dark.
Tip: Now is the time to plant a new lawn or overseed an old one. You can inexpensively overseed an older lawn in October and have a lush greensward to gaze upon all winter long. With a hand-held Whirlybird spreader, distribute the seed, then cover it with a thin layer of steer manure. Water daily until all seeds have germinated.