Tannenbummer: La Jolla museum’s tree not looking very merry

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego says its recently relocated Norfolk Pine tree is not dying. Landscape architect Jim Neri says he’s not so sure. Next spring, if the tree shows signs of regrowth on most of its branches, Neri said, that’s proof it will come back.

The pine tree at the center of La Jolla controversy since 2015 is now controversial for another reason.

Four months after it was dug up and relocated by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) as part of its $95 million expansion plan, the evergreen is turning brown.

When e-mailed about it by the Light, MCASD stated its Norfolk pine is undergoing “a natural, fully anticipated regeneration process in which it sheds its needles in order to bring key nutrients to all parts of the tree.” MCASD added that “several arborists evaluate the tree on a regular basis and develop a proactive approach to its care.”

However, landscape architect Jim Neri — who has planted trees at the San Diego Zoo and around La Jolla for decades — examined the tree from a nearby balcony and wasn’t so sure. His prognosis was “a slow dieback” that may be reversible and may not be.

“On tree-moving, I have to tell you, it’s a crapshoot on almost every tree,” Neri said. “Here at this location, the wind is just brutal in the wintertime, so it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better, and the tree may not snap out of it at all.”

When MCASD announced plans to expand its 7000 Prospect St. campus, this tree — planted at the museum’s southwest corner sometime in the 1980s — proved too close to where the western-most side of the new wing would be built. The original plans were to remove it.

But neighbors complained and members of the La Jolla Development Permit Review committee recommended relocating the tree or altering that corner of the proposed building. The museum responded with plans for its relocation.

On Aug. 21, a crane hoisted the tree into the air and toward four posts that guided it gently down into a concrete encasement about 15 feet southeast of its original location. For a week beforehand, workers boxed the roots and secured ropes to the pine’s branches.

In its statement to the Light, the Museum wrote it has taken “all possible measures to ensure the tree adjusts to its new location, including the implementation of hand-watering, a nursing technique that goes beyond the generalized approach of a drip system and aims for maximum absorption.”

Neri doesn’t disagree.

“Everything I can see from here tells me they’ve gone out of their way to do everything right,” he said, “except for the size of the hole, of course, because it’s a lot smaller proportionally for that tree. I can’t say how big the root ball was when they boxed it.” (Neri also said it’s possible that the main tree root could have gotten cut back more than it wanted to be.)

Next spring, if the tree shows signs of regrowth on most of its branches, Neri said, that’s proof it will come back.

“You’ll never see all that dead stuff turn green,” he said. “But if there’s any juice left in this thing, you’ll see the tips start to turn green.”

According to the Museum: “All parties will have a better sense of the tree’s future health and viability by the end of summer 2021.”