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Distinctive Sacramento tree lost in storm

The midtown-favorite floss silk tree that collapsed in Thursday’s storm may have been the only Central Valley example of a Ceiba Speciosa, said Warren Roberts, superintendent emeritus of the UC Davis Arboretum.
The midtown-favorite floss silk tree that collapsed in Thursday’s storm may have been the only Central Valley example of a Ceiba Speciosa, said Warren Roberts, superintendent emeritus of the UC Davis Arboretum. efletcher@sacbee.com

The storm didn’t wreak the havoc predicted in the Sacramento region, but it wasn’t victimless. It claimed the life Thursday of a midtown favorite – a rare Northern California example of the South American-native floss silk tree.

For better than 30 years, the tree – along with the 1900s Victorian it graced – defined the northeast corner of 21st and T streets. Known for its spiked, green trunk and tropical flowers, the tree may have been the only Central Valley example of a Ceiba speciosa, said Warren Roberts, superintendent emeritus of the UC Davis Arboretum.

The tree collapsed Thursday amid a storm that dumped 2.63 inches of rain on Sacramento. The city received nearly 30 reports of trees or limbs in public roadways.

Friday, all that remained was the tree’s spiky trunk. The hillside in which it grew was sopped with water. Mushrooms growing from the roots hinted at internal decay.

The tree was planted by Alice Smith, who, with her husband, William “Bill” Smith, often traveled abroad, said Carolyn Ann Smith, whose family owns the home. The Shingle/Queen Anne house, built around 1900 by Fred Mason, is distinguished by its round tower.

“They traveled around the world and she would pick up plants from all of their travels,” Smith said of her parents. “She was an avid gardener. She could grow anything.”

Twice a year, the tree would produce a lovely canopy of large magenta flowers.

“My grandfather joked that she put it in the front yard to stop the kids from climbing the trees,” said Scott Smith, who lived in the house with his grandmother, Alice Smith, for a brief time. “I always wanted to climb it even though it had the thorns.”

Roberts, who spent some time in Uruguay, said the tree had a special place in his heart, too.

“It’s the only one that I knew of that is growing in the Central Valley,” said Roberts, who has been with the UC Davis Arboretum for 41 years. “Although it liked the heat of the Central Valley, it doesn’t like the cold.”

He said seeing that tree for the first time took his breath away and reminded him of his travels. It’s also known as palo borracho in Spanish, or drunken stick.

“It was such a joy to see the tree,” Roberts said. “It’s one of my favorite trees.”

Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.

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