After planting trees other than the iconic ficus on Tempe’s Mill Avenue, the city is returning to its roots.
Tempe will replace dying ficus trees with more of the same because of the reaction to an experiment with the Chinese pistache.
Councilwoman Shana Ellis said at public hearings about a streetcar line on Mill Avenue, the conversation often shifts to the small pistaches that replaced dead ficuses.
“I got all sorts of comments about the Charlie Brown trees that we planted out there,” she said.
Councilwoman Onnie Shekerjian said people don’t say they like Mill Avenue’s trees — they specifically say they like the ficus trees.
The ficus-versus-pistache issue had simmered for several years, but the City Council settled it Thursday with unanimous support for the ficus. The city had tried the pistache out of concern the tropical ficus might not thrive in some spots on Mill.
The ficus trunks burn where the trees aren’t shaded by buildings and many were doomed to a short lifespan because of improper pruning in their youth. And many are ailing from a fungus called sooty canker, which has devastated ficus in some California cities. A 2010 ficus inventory by an aborist found nearly 50 of the 113 trees were hazardous and had 10 years to almost no time before they should be removed.
City staff had proposed putting Chinese pistache at intersections and other areas where a large number of ficus had died or were struggling. That would leave Mill Avenue mostly covered with ficus, originally planted in 1987.
But the City Council on Thursday didn’t like that the pistache lost its leaves in the winter.
Mayor Hugh Hallman said the city has since learned how to prune ficus properly. The city will consider larger planter grates and water-permeable pavement so the trees can develop better root systems that support larger canopies.
Despite years of budget cuts in Tempe, Shekerjian said it’s worth spending the extra money to preserve the ficus. She said the size of some recently removed trees shows the ficus can thrive all along Mill Avenue.
“They got to be very large. And I often wondered if they were trimmed properly and cared for the way we now know ficus trees need to be cared for in the desert, if they wouldn’t have been just fine if we had handled them differently now that we have more information,” Shekerjian said.
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