Balboa Park is known for the diverse collection of plants and trees, and this iconic Moreton Bay Fig Tree is huge part of that legacy. Documented to have been planted as a 5-gallon Ficus macrophylla in 1914, in preparation for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, this stunning giant looms large as a well-known landmark. This tree is listed in the California Registry of Big Trees as one of the champion trees of the state. According to the registry, the tree measured in 1996 about 78 feet (24 meters) high, with a crown width of 123 feet (37 m) and a trunk girth of 486 inches (12.3 m). It shares the title for this species with the famous Moreton Bay Fig tree of Santa Barbara, California, which has a broader canopy but is not as high.
Ficus macrophylla is a native of east Australia. When it is grown in an open area where it can spread, the Moreton Bay Fig may become as much as 150 feet wide; but crowded in its natural forest habitat—or near buildings in an urban setting—it tends to grow tall and narrow. Several other specimens of this species, as well as 32 other kinds of fig trees, are planted in Balboa Park. Many people who grew up in San Diego remember climbing around the roots of this tree as children. Unfortunately, heavy foot traffic caused soil compaction and damage to the delicate surface-feeding roots of the tree, preventing it from obtaining nutrients and water, and the tree began to decline. It was trimmed and fenced off in 1989, mulch was allowed to accumulate, and the tree has recovered and once again shows thick, glossy foliage. As it has recovered it has begun to show the aerial roots that are characteristic of fig trees. In the wild, these roots would have been growing since the early youth of the tree, and would have reached the ground and developed into stout, woody props to help support the heavy branches.
Providing shade and respite under the canopy everyday, the tree is stunningly illuminated during the Balboa Park December Nights celebration each year. Washed in color and glowing in the night sky, the Moreton Bay Fig Tree has become a fan-favorite meeting spot during the first Friday and Saturday in December.
From a distance, the Moreton Bay Fig Tree stands as an icon in Balboa Park.