Make your way into the front drive at the Fairmont Miramar, and you’ll be welcomed by a horticultural marvel that’s impossible to miss: the magnificent Moreton Bay Fig Tree. Standing at 80 feet tall with a 120-foot network of branches shading the circle below, it greets hotel guests and visitors alike with its entangled above-ground roots and leathery dark green leaves.
You may also be greeted by Renato Argueta, who — as the head of the property’s valet team for over 25 years — has likely spent more time with the tree than anyone else. “I have the beautiful fig tree in front of me [as] my office… and I get energy from the tree,” he says. And that’s no surprise: Thanks to its unique history in Santa Monica, the tree has developed a certain magnetism over the years.
The story of how the tree came to be in such an unlikely place begins with Nevada Senator John P. Jones, the founder of Santa Monica, and his wife, Georgina Jones, who built the original Miramar as a family mansion in the late 1800s.
Some slight variations in the cheeky tale exist, but Argueta swears by Jones’ grandson’s retelling: After Jones died, his wife and son converted the Miramar mansion into a hotel and bar. One of the regular bar patrons was an Australian sailor, who one day couldn’t pay for his drink — instead, he asked to settle his tab with a fig tree he had in his boat at the Santa Monica Pier. With the permission of Jones’ wife, the bartender agreed and found a spot for it on the property.
“And that’s where it is today, thanks to the sailor, the bartender, and of course, Senator Jones’ wife, Georgina” says Argueta. (Not to mention a man named W.H. Lee, the Jones’ family gardener who is said to have actually planted it.) “That’s how we have the most beautiful tree in the world.”
More than 140 years have passed since then, and the tree has grown to be the second largest of its kind in California. Known for years as the Jones Family Tree, past owners of the hotel have been careful to preserve the tree’s historical roots (literally and figuratively).
The tree was declared a historic landmark in 1976 by the Santa Monica Landmark’s Commission, and under the care of the Fairmont Miramar, it will continue to thrive for years to come. “I speak to the gardeners and the people that maintain the tree all the time, and they say the tree is in great health,” says Argueta. Our tree has become internationally recognized and receives many guests, including some very famous ones such as Britney Spears and many more.
To this day, figs still grow on the tree, though they’re ornamental (so you won’t find them on the menu at FIG, the Fairmont Miramar’s signature restaurant). The figs begin to fall to the ground around April, says Argueta, and they grow back early in the fall.
And with every fig that drops and guest that enters under its canopy, the tree’s legacy will continue to grow — they can live for hundreds of years, if not more, says Argueta. “So many generations will see this beautiful tree.”