From glorious maples to centuries-old sycamores, Laguna Woods Village is home to about 34,000 trees that have delighted residents since 1965.

“This is, after all, called ‘Laguna Woods Village,’” said Jean Lustig, a resident and lover of trees, “and people here as well as myself are fascinated by our trees.”

Lustig said that when Laguna Woods Village – formerly Leisure World – was being developed by Ross Cortese in the mid-60s, around 58,000 trees from all over the world were planted because the climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean.

“We have so many great trees and species, and it’s hard to believe this was just grazing land when the developer bought it,” Lustig said. “He loved trees and had his group do research to find the ones that would grow well in the California climate.”

Lustig, 90, who is originally from New Jersey, has been studying the community’s trees for years and did the planning and research on the Laguna Woods Village Tree Walk Guides, co-created with resident Pat Wilkinson.

“I guess you could say it’s a habit of mine to study them,” Lustig said. “When I first got here, I walked around and took a serious interest in them. I became fascinated by all the trees because of the variety and the fact they come from all over the world.”

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Tree guides

The Tree Walk Guides each offer a personal experience with nature, said Wilkinson, who handled the photography and created the brochures.

“The walks are self-guided, but the guides we did are very helpful,” she said. “Each has pictures of all the trees on each walk with an explanation of what they are about and where they come from, as well as an anecdote that may be interesting.”

The women crafted the guides in September 2018. They were available to pick up at the Laguna Woods Village History Center, next to the Village Library, but the center is currently closed because of the pandemic. However, the guides can be downloaded for free and video versions of the guides can be viewed at lagunawoodshistory.org/community/treeguide.

The guides cover three walks: the Friendship Walk, the Aliso Creek Park Walk and the Serpentine Walk, Wilkinson said.  There are about 25 trees to see per walk, and each guide tells a story from the beginning to the end of the trail.

“The reason Jean and I started the tree guides was because people were asking about the old walks and the maps that used to be put out by the recreation department,” Wilkinson said. “What started as a small project turned into something so much larger. It has been a wonderful eye-opener for the History Center, and now people know a little of what we are and what we do.”

Wilkinson, 85, who has been a Village resident for 23 years, said that of the three tree walks, she likes the Serpentine the best.

“It is so open and the longest,” she said. “All the people around that walk take special care of their gardens, which are just lovely in the spring and summer, and especially when the trees bloom.”

All three walks are easy because the routes are flat, with no hills, Wilkinson said. “It’s great for walkers, hikers and those in wheelchairs, too,” she said. They all take less than an hour to complete.

Residents who are unable to get outside can enjoy the walks by watching the videos, which combined take about 30 minutes.

“I did the videos online for the people who are housebound or unable to actually take the walk – this way they can enjoy them from the comfort of their favorite chair,” Wilkinson said.

“People overall really like the tree guides because it gives them the chance to learn about the trees. A lot of people walk, but they don’t necessarily pay attention to the trees. Through the tree guides they can enjoy where (the trees) came from, their names, and more.”

Lustig, a longtime nature lover, said one of her favorite trees in the Village is the Brazilian pepper tree because, “even though some countries see it as a weed, I find it interesting.”

“Years ago, I encountered a huge one at Aliso Creek that caught my attention, and I thought it was neat looking,” she said.

Lustig said she has always belonged to nature and conservation groups and walks the Village paths frequently.

“I have folders on each of the trees that I wrote about for the brochures, along with tidbits and fun facts,” she said.

As for Wilkinson, she said her favorite is the Cook pine.

“They are all over the world and are so unusual because wherever they grow, they bend 6 to 8 degrees (toward the equator), whether they are north or south of the equator,” she said. “We have them all over the Village, so if you ever see a bent-over pine, that’s a Cook pine.”

A community favorite, Wilkinson said, is the American sycamore in the Peace Grove along Aliso Creek. It dates back more than 400 years, she said, having given shelter to the Indians who once lived along the creek.

There once was an old sycamore that many residents dubbed “the Halloween Tree” because its trunk burls made it look like a scary face.

“It was slowly dying and had some issues that made it impossible to save, so staff removed it three or four years ago,” Wilkinson said.

Care of the trees

It takes a lot of work to keep those 34,000 trees looking their best, says Kurt Wiemann, ​director of Landscape Services for Village Management Services. All trees are trimmed at least once in five years, he said, and the occurrence of trimming is based on the species: fast-growing trees are trimmed every two years, slow-growing trees every five years, with many falling in between.

Wiemann said the work is done by contractors and staff, including seven full-time tree trimmers and tree arborists.

“Trees are beautiful,” he said. “They bring natural beauty to the Village, and we have so many mature, full-grown trees that are quite statuesque, bring shade, fresh air, and a peaceful feel to the area.”

Of course, many of the original 58,000 trees that developer Cortese planted have since died or have been removed because of disease and overgrowth as roots invaded drains and sidewalks throughout the community.

“Some trees, like the sycamore in the creek area, can live for hundreds of years. Others only last 30 years,” Wiemann said. “We only remove trees when there is no other option and plant new trees whenever appropriate. Our goal is to maintain a healthy, thriving urban forest.”

In the end, Wilkinson said, Cortese certainly knew what he was doing when he was developing the former ranch that was once grazing land.

“For example, he planted blooming trees, like jacarandas, that bloom beautiful purple flowers in the late spring. And there are lots of banks in the Village that were perfect for planting olive trees whose graceful branches shade our homes,” she said.

“He loved nature and landscaping, and the fact that he did has made this place so pretty over the years. The lush landscaping and the trees are the first things people see when they come to Laguna Woods Village.”

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By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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