The iconic tree thought to have inspired 'The Lorax' has suddenly died — and the whole species is at risk of extinction

Jason Rogers/FlickrThe Dr. Seuss book ‘The Lorax’ is about a creature who ‘speaks for the trees.’

Last week, a tree in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla delivered a poignant message about Earth’s current extinction crisis: It suddenly fell down.

While a single tree’s death is not usually cause for concern, this particular Monterey cypress had a literary legacy. The arboreal giant was said to have inspired the iconic Dr. Seuss story “The Lorax,” which was published in 1971.

The tree stood in Ellen Browning Scripps Park, near where Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss was a pen name) lived with his wife Audrey from 1948 until his death in 1991. The town website notes that the author could see the park and its cypress tree from his home.

The tree’s cascading scruff of leaves, which sit atop a twisty trunk, does indeed bear a resemblance to the Truffula trees in the book. In the story, the greedy Once-ler exploits Truffula trees for their fuzzy leaves, chopping them all down for use in his factories, which spew smog and pollute local waters. The protagonist of this environmental-disaster tale is a creature called the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees” and stands up to the Once-ler.


Read more:
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San Diego Parks and Recreation Department spokesman Tim Graham told CNN that the “Lorax tree” – as locals called it – was thought to be between 80 and 100 years old when it died. But Monterey cypress trees (Cupressus macrocarpa) can live to 150. So for now, arborists don’t know why the tree toppled over.

“The tree was not dead at the time it fell, and was generally in good shape with the exception of some stressing due to termites.” Graham told the Washington Post.

It is clear, however, that the entire Monterey cypress species is at risk of extinction.

Experts aren’t sure what killed the ‘Lorax tree’

Graham told the LA Times that La Jolla experienced a “very wet winter,” so his team is examining the soil in the park to see if the moisture played a role. If the soil around a tree’s roots become inundated with water, that can cause instability.

“Once the ground is saturated, it doesn’t take much to push them over,” arborist Kurt Stegen told the Sacramento Bee. After big storms hit, “the soil in some areas is almost liquefied,” he added.

Typically, however, the biggest threats to Monterey cypresses are wildfires and infections like cypress canker disease, which is caused by a lethal fungus.

Cypress TreeWikimedia CommonsThe century-old Monterey Cypress in Ellen Browning Scripps Park is said to have inspired “The Lorax.”

The Monterey cypress is vulnerable to extinction

The Monterey cypress isn’t native to La Jolla – it grows naturally only in Point Lobos (on the south side of California’s Carmel Bay) and between Point Cypress and Pescadero Point on the north side of the Monterey peninsula.

But due to the tree’s pleasing aesthetic, it has been widely planted up and down the California coast, as well as in Hawaii, Europe, South America, Australia, and New Zealand.

The fate of this particular Monterey cypress may be an ominous warning about the species’ future. Just like its literary cousin the Truffula tree, the Monterey cypress is at risk of disappearing.

The tree species is listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature because its limited natural habitat is located in a tourism-heavy area that has a high risk of fires.

That puts the Monterey cypress on a long list of roughly 1 million species at risk of extinction, according to a recent UN report. Many of these species – including myriad insects, amphibians, and mammals – could be gone within decades.

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