While on an August home tour in Alhambra, I overheard residents who live in North Alhambra talking about a massive oak tree on their block. Curious, I asked them for the address and drove over for a look. As soon as I got out of my car at Curtis Avenue and Alhambra Road, I was shocked to see that it was indeed the largest oak tree I had ever encountered in the city.
With over 250 rings in its trunk — which spans 21 feet in circumference — the coast live oak tree is also one of the oldest in Alhambra. Looking up into the thick branches in the leafy shade was awe-inspiring. But how did this tree survive all of the development around it?
The tree has seen many residents, but its history would not have been the same without Dorothy Banbury. Banbury lived at the house on North Curtis for 59 years until she passed away on Nov. 8, and cared for the tree for generations, enlisting Finch Tree services to help protect the oak from disease and infection with regular treatments.
On a visit earlier this fall, the lively 94 year old — though small in stature — met me with an energy and love of life as large as her tree.
“I have loved that tree since I first saw it and it has been a big umbrella over my house for all these years,” Banbury said. “I have always felt protected by it."
Banbury was born in Eagle Rock in 1919 and moved to Alhambra, near Second and Main streets, in 1943. Growing up, she enjoyed being surrounded by nature. "We had a lot of trees on our property,” she said. “I have always loved being around trees.”
Banbury bought her home on Curtis in 1954. She was mainly attracted to the house because of the oak tree, which was so large at the time it shaded two adjacent homes.
Both the oak tree and Banbury are markers in time, telling a story of place and history. Oak trees like Banbury’s once covered much of the San Gabriel Valley foothills, providing nutrients for the Gabrielinos, KCET reports. “Oaks and the acorns they provided were so essential to life that several indigenous communities placed them at the center of their creation myths,” writes Nathan Masters in the SoCal Focus article.
With the arrival of the Spanish in the 1770s and later with the growth of Los Angeles in the 1870s, many of the local oaks were cut down for lumber and fuel and to make room for agriculture. "As the loggers clear-cut thousands of acres of oak woodlands and savannas and delivered the firewood to Los Angeles, bakers tossed the wood into their ovens, feeding a city while denuding the countryside,” Masters writes.
Banbury’s oak has survived the agricultural developments and the bakers' ovens, but others in the Los Angeles area have not. Several famous oak trees in Arcadia, Pasadena, and Sierra Madre have fallen in the last few decades. In South Pasadena, the Cathedral oak stood on the west side of Arroyo Drive until 1952. The Cathedral oak monument on Arroyo marks the spot where the first Easter services were held in California in 1770. The Lang oak grew in Encino for more than 1,000 years until it fell during fierce El Niño winds in 1998.
Banbury hoped that her tree would be protected after she passed away, although she believed that day would not come for another decade when I spoke with her. "I keep moving and do crossword puzzles every day,” Banbury said in August. “I have a great-great-granddaughter I want to see grow up so I am going to live to 104."
Hopefully, Banbury’s oak will continue to be admired and protected. Many local governments in the San Gabriel Valley protect oak trees by law, requiring permits for their removal. Alhambra does not have a tree ordinance, and that protection for our legacy trees would be honoring past, present, and future generations.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Dorothy Banbury passed away on Nov. 2 at the age of 95. We apologize for the errors.