Purple Reign: Jacaranda Trees Turn San Diego Ultra Violet

San Diego has about 12,000 of the flowering jacaranda "street trees" planted around the city, and it seems like they are all going off right now

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It's hard to miss the jacaranda trees this year — the 12,000 or so of them thriving along city streets, anyway — as they explode in color all over the city and county of San Diego.

If it seems like 2022 is especially vibrant, the soft purple petals carpeting all 100 neighborhoods of America's Finest City in a velvet fog the likes of which has rarely been seen, you're not wrong. Even San Diego city forester Brian Widener has noticed, and not just out the kitchen window of his North Park home where — SURPRISE — a jacaranda is in bloom.

Widener, a Northern California native who has a bachelor's of science degree in forestry from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, said on Tuesday that of the 200,000 "street trees" being cared for by the city of San Diego, the jacaranda is the most popular, if not the most prevalent, only superseded by the Queen Anne and fan palms. San Diego does not plant palm trees, though, mostly opting instead for species that are not terribly thirsty, that can deal with drought, whose roots can absorb more water/storm runoff and that offer a larger canopy, among other reasons.

"It's really obvious right not that the jacarandas are just taking off," Widener said with a laugh, adding later, "I almost feel like I was imagining it, right? 'Really?' There's all these purple trees, and I feel like I've not noticed it this intense, right? But maybe. maybe there's something going on. I mean, it does seem really spectacular the last week or two here."

It's believed that the jacaranda in San Diego, as is the case with many fantastic flora stories about the city, begins in the 1890s with Kate Sessions, the famed horticulturist who is believed to have first planted them locally as part of her commitment to plant 100 new trees in Balboa Park every year and a few hundred trees annually in public places, including along city streets. In fact, visitors to the site of her old home in Mission Hills can spy a towering specimen across the street, maybe one of the bigger ones in town.

"They are native to South America so, in particular, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, probably a few other countries as well, too," Widener said.

The trees have an incredibly long blooming season, in some cases starting as early as March, with purple pockets making appearances all the way to September or October. Widener said there tends to be two blooming seasons, though, in late May or early June, with spectacular flowering, and there seems to be another little season in the fall.

"There's a lot of factors involved," Widener said. "Some of it is just genetics, right? But it's definitely the season and the temperature outside, so, yeah, you may be seeing jacarandas blooming in Santa Barbara in July. Around here, it's usually late May, early June. And it just depends on previous weather patterns, like, 'Did we have a string of colder days?' Things like that, but every tree is a little bit unique too."

Want to get in on the purple haze? Just head over to the city's Free Tree SD web page and sign up. You do have to commit to helping it get started, water-wise, but the city will take care of the planting. Based on planting season and some other factors, though, you may have to wait nine months for yours to get in the ground. BTW, while you may request a jacaranda from the city, an arborist will make a final determination of what species will be planted — the city populates the sidewalks and everywhere else with more than 100 varieties of shade-makers, including the flowering crepe maple and gold medallion trees.

"What we do require of folks that sign up for a new tree is to commit to watering those new trees for three years," Widener said. "Our basic schedule is water a new tree for the first year twice a week, water it twice a month for the second year, then once a month for the third year."

And who's paying for all these jacarandas? Not just taxpayers.

"We have a fund actually in place called the Fig Fund," Widener said. "Back in, I think it was 2002, I believe, the city had a resolution put into place from a family called the Fig family, and they basically put in a place an endowment for the city of San Diego to use to plant jacaranda trees."

Widener said the city uses that fund — which, when it was opened, was several hundred thousand dollars — on almost a yearly basis to plant additional jacarandas throughout the city.

Not everybody loves the jacaranda, though. We're talking about the poor people who have to sweep up that purple rug every day, of course — and it is EVERY day. The trees and their sap can make car cleanup a sticky business, but Widener said the city receives just a tiny amount of complaints. And, yes, it's on you to clean it up if the trees adjoin your property.

Now, you may be wondering, if you're driving anywhere toward downtown — especially if you're on Beech Street and headed west, with the trees just RIOTING as you approach the bay — why, nestled in San Diego's alphabetically named tree streets between Kalmia and Ivy (yes, we know "ivy" is not a tree" but are assuming somebody was not familiar with the Ice Cream Bean, Incense Cedars or Indian Almond trees [thanks, TreeNames.net!]), you're driving by Juniper Street not Jacaranda Street. We made the suggestion for a name switch to Widener.

"Maybe we need to change that street name," Widener said with a laugh, adding later, "I could maybe talk to a couple people about it. We'll see. I do like junipers, too."

Pressed on the topic, the laughing Widener said, "We'll take it into consideration."

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