Green Neighbors: Mayten, a Tree Refugee

By Ron Sullivan
Thursday June 12, 2008 - 12:22:00 PM
A street row of maytens in San Francisco.
By Ron Sullivan
A street row of maytens in San Francisco.

Chilean mayten, Maytenus boari, has for quite a while been touted as a substitute for “California” peppertree, Schinus molle, since the latter has been ravaged by scale insects and disease. The peppertree was supposedly introduced by Spanish missionaries, who brought it up from South America. It’s been in the California landscape a long time, so we have some senior specimens. It’s a pity to lose them wholesale, and I don’t see mayten as filling that same aesthetic niche as peppertree’s gnarled black trunk dressed in such unlikely, graceful foliage.  

Mayten is a handsome tree in its own right, more gracile overall and with similarly feathery leaves, casting a light shade that’s often all we’d want in the fog belt. It’s drought-tolerant and evergreen, and takes pruning well when it’s done right. (That’s the rub, isn’t it?)  

Maytens share the family Celastraceae—distant relatives of oaks and apples—with an odd lot of species, including the bittersweet vine and the khat shrub, whose leaves provide a popular recreational drug in places like Yemen and Somalia. Typical maytens are tree-sized. They occur widely in the Americas (Mexico to Tierra del Fuego), Africa (Ethiopia to South Africa), and Southeast Asia. Most are found in tropical areas; the Chilean mayten is one of the few exceptions.  

Every exotic street tree has a context somewhere. The homeland of the Chilean mayten is a plant community called the matorral—the Chilean matorral, to be exact, as opposed to similar formations elsewhere in the Americas. It used to cover about a hundred-kilometer-wide strip of Chile’s central coast. 

Chilean matorral, like California chaparral and European maquis, evolved in a summer-dry Mediterranean climate. Its sclerophyll (hard-leaved) shrubs play the same ecological role as their chaparral counterparts. But there are differences: matorral shrubs are spaced farther apart than chaparral shrubs, and bromeliads, vines, and bulbs, including the flagrantly gaudy alstroemerias, grow in their shelter-or did until they were grazed to death by feral rabbits. 

The wildlife is different too: instead of quail and wrentits, the Chilean matorral has tinamous (superficially partridge-like birds that are actually related to ostriches and rheas), giant hummingbirds the size of starlings, and mouse opossums the size of, well, mice, in some cases. At least seven bird species are matorral endemics.  

Within the matorral, the Chilean mayten grows only in the coast range, in moist canyons and on south-facing slopes. Its associates include the Jubaea or wine palm, whose sweet sap, collected like maple syrup, used to be the country’s major source of sugar. There aren’t many of those palms left; the matorral as a whole has been badly trashed and is minimally protected. 

I don’t know if anyone has attempted a mayten census, but there may be more specimens in California than in Chile by now. It’s an adaptable tree—maybe a little too adaptable.  

The California Invasive Plants Council hasn’t listed it yet, but notes that there’s a localized infestation on Angel Island. I recall hearing about rogue maytens in Strawberry Canyon a few years ago, and up in Davis. It’s a weed in New Zealand, and they’re starting to give it the stink-eye in Spain. That’s the problem with the perfect plant, anywhere you plant it.