By Dave Schwab
The 5500 block of Waverly Avenue in Bird Rock has “Christmas” trees.
But they’re eucalyptus trees, not pines as you might expect.
They’ve also got something trees most everywhere else don’t have: a patron saint.
Waverly resident Rita O’Neil, 88, has been de facto “caretaker” for the towering Eucalyptus trees near her home for 40 years.
“Rita’s been the champion of keeping the trees from a historical perspective, as well as making sure nobody tears them down and abuses them,” said neighbor Trevor Rodger who, along with numerous others, have participated for a second consecutive year in using the eucalyptus tree canopy overhanging their block to create a Christmas light show being called “Waverly Wonderland.”
Twenty years ago, O’Neil worked with city arborist Drew Potocki to help save Waverly’s beloved Eucalyptus trees when they were threatened by a drought. With Potocki’s help, advice from Australia, special injections and meticulous watering, the eucalyptus trees survived.
Today, those same trees have attained unanticipated significance: Not only have they become neighborhood monuments, but they’re perfect natural fixtures from which to string the holiday ornamentation Waverly is becoming noted for.
Right after Thanksgiving Rodger, Jason Meyer, Keith Weir and a handful of other people on the block took turns riding a huge rented hydraulic lift to wrap Christmas lights around trees and hang stars and other ornaments across the street lined on both sides by the stately eucalyptus. It was a big job.
“I was on top of the lift pretty much for two straight days,” noted Rodger.
“He and the others were climbing around in the trees like monkeys,” joked O’Neil.
Rodger said Waverly Wonderland is having a therapeutic effect.
“It’s kind of fun for everybody to pitch in and we all come together,” he said. “This year, to make it even more special, we had a chili cookoff with all the neighbors making their own types which we judged.”
So far it’s just been the 5500 block of Waverly that’s been participating in the Christmas decorating. But Rodger’s hopes that may change soon.
“We’re trying to inspire some of the other people to join in and have the Christmas spirit,” he said.
To Rita O’Neil and her husband Tim, Waverly Wonderland is just the newest part of the time-honored holiday tradition of celebrating neighborhood “pride.” And what the O’Neils are most proud of is the natural, often overlooked, elements of their community — the trees and associated wildlife.
Going out into her backyard, Rita O’Neil shows off her pride and joy, a sprawling, overwhelmingly huge, awe-inspiring tree dominating her entire backyard that she said is of the ficus variety.
“We’ve been told it’s the fourth largest tree in the county,” said Tim O’Neil, adding the enormous ficus has become a nesting ground for hawks who who’ve been known to swoop down and “bounce off your shoulder” in protecting their young.
It’s nice to be able to take the block’s natural wonders, its trees, enhance them by dressing them up for the holidays, and to share that experience with the entire neighborhood.
“That’s why we do it,” concluded Rodger.