Those Useless Trees – El Pino Famoso

Those Useless Trees

Angelenos are known for their obsessions with celebs and without a doubt, one of the hottest trees on the landscape today is “El Pino Famoso,” also known (because its fame is implicit) as “El Pino.” On my way to breakfast at El Mercado de Los Angeles in Boyle Heights this morning, I caught up with this famous tree, whose IMDB credits include a co-starring role in 1993’s cholo epic, Blood in, Blood Out.

Looking up at El Pino
Looking up at El Pino

DID YOU KNOW?

Bunya forest in Australia (Source: Forest Venture)
Bunya forest in Australia (Source: Forest Venture)

The Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii), as it is commonly known in English, is not actually a pine (genus “Pinus”). The tree is actually in the same genus as the the Araucaria araucana, which though also not a pine is nevertheless known in English as the Chilean pine. Araucaria do have characteristics in common with pines, though, including the fact that they’re evergreens and coniferous (there are evergreens which aren’t coniferous, by the way, like larches). Although the Bunya was widespread during the Mesozoic era, today its natural range is limited to a few disjunct groves in Queensland Australia near Moreton Bay.

Crowns of emergent trees in Bunya Mountains National Park, Queensland (Trevor Hinchliffe)
Crowns of emergent trees in Bunya Mountains National Park, Queensland (Trevor Hinchliffe)

The indigenous Barunggam people traditionally regarded the Bunya Pine with deep spiritual reverence. Bunyas generally fruit once every three years or so, and when they did the Barunggam would invite neighboring indigenous people to their homeland in the aptly-named Bunya Mountains for festivities which involved religious ceremonies, marriages, and of course, Bunya nut feasts.

EL PINO

Looking down Indiana, the border between Los Angeles (Boyle Heights) and East Los Angeles
Looking down Indiana, the border between Los Angeles (Boyle Heights) and East Los Angeles

El Pino stands near the border of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, in the Palma Heights tract of the latter. It towers above the house at 3308 Folsom Street which was built in 1915. Bunyas first appeared in the West in 1843, when English botanist John Carne Bidwill sent specimens to English botanist Sir William Hooker. Parts of Southern California and Australia share a similar Chaparral climate and Australian immigrants such as Eucalyptus and Moreton Bay Figs remain common fixtures of the Los Angeles landscape. Bunyas are much more rare.

California Nursery Company Catalog 1915
California Nursery Company Catalog 1915

Bunyas were popular in the 1880s but were already falling from fashion by the following decade. Several continue to stand in parks but few share space with homes. My suspicion is that they fell from favor because of their cones. Bunyas reach heights of 45 meters and produce cones with diameters of 35 centimeters. Roughly the size of watermelons, they weigh up to ten kilograms (22 pounds) and one doesn’t have to be Sir Isaac Newton to imagine what would happen when they fall… although it doesn’t hurt. 

Navy veteran Sean Mace required multiple surgeries when one fell on him as he slept under a Bunya tree. As a result he sued the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior for $5 million and that organization have responded by erecting plastic fences and installing warning signs. Whilst I am sympathetic to Mace’s plight I do think that people should be able to read natures signs as well and if there are giant, heavy cones littering the ground beneath a tree that might serve as a sign that it’s no more safe a place to nap than, say, an alley strewn with broken bottles (which probably has no sign warning against laying in it).

BLOOD IN BLOOD OUT

El Pino’s fame is based almost entirely on Blood In, Blood Out. It’s location doesn’t appear on any star maps but tourists from around the world come there to behold it (and hopefully not to nap underneath it). In that film, when Miklo gets out of prison Paco asks him where he wants to go and without hesitation, Miklo replies, “El Pino.” When Vatos Locos (the fictional gang to which they belong) get there Miklo says “That tree is East Los to me.”

El Pino was chosen by the filmmakers in part for its regional recognizability. There aren’t that many tall structures on the Eastside, and those that there are were built by people (e.g. the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Mail Order Building, the Dependable Logistics Services Building, Fairmount Terrace, the campus of Cal State Los Angeles, and the campus of the LAC + USC Medical Center). Unlike most natural features, El Pino, already tall but perched on top of a hill and surrounded only by homes, is visible from far away. Not long ago, James Rojas led a Latino Urbanism tour of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. As we were stood at the far end of Evergreen Cemetery I pointed it out in the distance. As if on cue, a truck rolled up and one of the occupants yelled, “Vatos Locos forever!” 

When Blood In, Blood Out was filmed, El Pino and the property on which it’s situated was owned by Eusebio Ortega, who’d moved to the house in the 1980s. He obviously, given its size, didn’t plant the tree and legend has it that the tree was planted by a Japanese dentist known as Mr. T. Okuno — although I suspect that it was planted before he lived there if he acquired the property in the 1940s.

I’m not sure if it was the same man and I don’t have old census records lying around but I did discover that there was a Thomas Takeo Okuno who studied at the dental school of University of California in Berkeley and later moved to Southern California. He was born in Hawai’i to Hamamura Okuno in 5 November 1902. At Berkley he boarded with the family of Masaaki Honda, who later wrote Suzuki Changed My Life. In 1940, two years before the forced internment of Japanese-Americans, there was a T. Okuno was registered as living in Inglewood with his wife, Haneke, and their two daughters, Nobuko (born in 1936) and Tomoko (born in 1939). I don’t know if this was the same T. Okuno but whatever the case may be, this T. Okuno was sent to the notorious Manzanar concentration camp in the Owens Valley.

Drone footage including El Pino (by Erick M.)

When the Japanese-Americans were freed, most were dispossessed of all they had owned prior to 1942. The version of the legend I’ve most often encountered is that the Okunos that lived beneath El Pino received the house as a gift from Mrs. Okuna’s sympathetic Anglo boss, which seems pretty generous. Casting further doubt on this version, in 1940 the property had been registered to another Japanese-American, one Hide Okuno. Thomas Takeo Okuno died in December 1986 and I know nothing of the rest of the Okunos but if you can clear up the story, I’d be very interested in any information you might provide.

I’d also like to create a listing and map of all known Bunyas in the Southland. Here’s a map of the ones that I know of. If you can help, please send a picture and address and I’ll happily credit you.

The Bunya in Silver Lake
The Bunya in Silver Lake

*****

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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4 thoughts on “Those Useless Trees – El Pino Famoso

  1. Very cool post. I am partial to this spot (Folsom & Floral) because it is also the top of a public stairway of over 100 steps. I only heard about Blood in, Blood out after reading an LAT story that interviewed Director Taylor Hackford about the storyline with this tree. When I viewed the movie, I saw early on footage of a stairway that must be the predecessor to the newer one there now. We did a walk around here and I had to point out to the group not to confuse this Bunya Pine with “trees” that we had just passed at Folsom and Rowan that looked no more bizarre in the setting. Those were cell towers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The staircase is quite different from most that I’ve encountered (although I’m sure you’ve seen ones like it). I didn’t notice the cell phone towers, actually, although there are a lot of odd plants around there — probably a relic of the historic presence of Japanese gardeners (at least that’s my guess).

      Like

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