Chapeau! to Green Neighbors: Congregation Beth Israel

By Ron Sullivan
Thursday August 20, 2009 - 10:53:00 AM

We were strolling under the paperbarks (irresistibly dubbed “fluffula truffula trees” by one Daily Planet reader) on Jefferson Street near Bancroft, and it occurred to me that it’s time for my unofficially annual tree rant.  

What occasions this one is praise—I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m an unalloyed grouch.  

Officially it’s named Melaleuca linariifolia, flaxleaf papebark or cajeput tree, or sometimes “snow-in-summer” like the pretty silver-leaved groundcover Cerastium tomentosum. It’s an Australian, like a lot of strange plants that thrive here; drought-tolerant, non-invasive here as far as I know though it’s a problem in Florida.  

It’s fun to get up close and personal with this tree, because its bark is deeply squooshy. Go ahead; hug one. Try to resist pulling the softly shaggy bark off in strips, though… Well, don’t take much, as the trees here have to cope with a dense human population.  

The double file of paperbarks lined up on that street, and a few other plantings in Berkeley and Albany, make one of several reliably wonderful summer urban sights in the East Bay when they all bloom at once. The trees have a round-headed form, fluffy indeed, and the little white flowers open en masse on the ends of the myriad twigs to make a foamy, creamy set of sculptures held above those improbably pale and raggedy-veiled trunks.  

There was a nice difference in the two trees on the Jefferson Street side of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue; I didn’t see it until we walked directly under them and looked up.  

Paperbarks make a dense canopy, and the underside of the foliage mass, left on its own, forms a dark cave full of dead and dangling twigs. In the wild and untouched, I’m sure these make great shelter for the assorted birds and marsupials and herps and other critters that live with them.  

City life is different, though. Just leaving a tree to its own devices isn’t always the best thing, especially where its castoff leaves and twigs don’t naturally fall to the ground beneath it to make a nice nutritious duff.  

In the wrong hands, a paperbark could so easily turn into a rack of poodleballs, which would be an insult to anything less common than a Hollywood juniper. (The only thing moderating my reaction to poodleballing Hollywood junipers is my residual personal malice toward that plant.)  

I haven’t yet found out who pruned the paperbarks at Jefferson and Bancroft; I figure it was somebody hired by Congregation Beth Israel, or maybe there’s a tree genius right there in its ranks.  

Whoever it was did an excellent job: it appears that he or she simply cleaned out the shaded-out dead stuff to expose the branch structure, seen from below. I suspect there was some more sophisticated work too, but it all follows the tree’s natural form and the result is great. The pale branches visible against the (apparently untouched) dark canopy form a handsome, muscular sculpture.  

Hats off to some thoughtful, skilled pruning, and to whoever had the brains to give the right person that job!