What are those one-inch Christmas trees growing on the oaks?

1 Oct 2014   Idea of the day  “Psychiatric drugs send just under 90,000 individuals to emergency rooms each year.”  Journal of the American Medical Association

I was out in the field today evaluating the trees at a mid-size condominium complex when I noticed the strangest looking growths on a few sand live oaks.

They were growing right at the meristems at the tips of stems where you would expect to find acorns this time of year.   But this oak had very few acorns and lots and lots of these one-inch long miniature “Christmas trees” growing in those spots instead!  It was down right weird looking.

Meristems are those portions of a tree where plant tissue responsible for growth differentiates and divides to form the various organs of the tree.   But instead of differentiating from twig to acorn, these magical trees were growing dwarf spruce trees.

My first thought was that these were “acorns gone bad”, like deformed miscarriages.  I started doing some research and could not find exactly what I had seen.   But finally I found something close to it.  It was growing from the bud stem in between three leaves.  The arborist who spotted it on a sand live oak posted it for a year as a “female oak flower” because that’s what it looks like!   A year later she was corrected by a Master Naturalist.

It’s a parasitic wasps’ gall !    Turns out scientists are still learning about these unusual creatures which number in the hundreds of different varieties.  And what a strange life cycle they have!

I had thought all galls were round and hard, and in fact I had seen a couple of those types on this same oak.  But there were so many more of the Christmas tree shaped ones with nothing hard about them that I thought they had to be something different. The have soft “needles” similar to what you’d find on a pine.

A gall is an abnormal plant growth on a leaf or, in this case, at the meristems where you would expect acorns to be growing that parasitic insects, wasps or flies, use for their reproductive cycle.   Here is how it works.

In July or August adult wasps hatch from the galls, mate and then fall to the ground (apparently from post-coital exhaustion? 🙂    The females then burrow into the ground and inject eggs into the roots.

The larvae hang around and munch on the roots for up to a year until they reach the immobile resting transformation stage called pupae.   Only wingless females hatch from these pupae.   In early spring they crawl out of the soil, climb up the tree (!), find a meristem and inject their eggs.

The larvae hatch inside the twig’s reproductive tissue.   The larvae emit a chemical that causes a gall to grow around them, in the case of this variety, a miniature Christmas tree.  They use some parts of the gall for nourishment.  When they mature and hatch to start the cycle all over, they leave their bushy “miniature pine trees” hanging in the sand live oaks in autumn looking like they should be acorns.  As parasites, it’s not unlikely that they do use the tree’s energy that otherwise would be producing more acorns.

In the meantime they are not unattractive autumn ornaments that have probably befuddled many an arborist.  As long as they don’t appear in large volume, they won’t hurt the trees.



Arborist Stares Death in The Eye For Sake of Tree Identification

11 August 2014  Idea of the Day  “First they ignore you.  Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you.  Then you win.”  Mahatma Gandhi

Whoever said a consulting arborist has a safe job?   Sure the young climbing arborist who swings through trees like a trapeze daredevil gets the headlines and the audience below craning their necks saying “ooooh” when he makes a particularly long leap to the next large limb, held only by a rope or two.  And yes the actual statistics of death by falls, electrocution or lightning strikes is a little higher for those tree acrobats.

But this old consulting arborist recently proved life can be just as cheap plying his trade.

It started out innocently enough.  I just hate not knowing what  a tree is for a customer and myself.   Drives me batty.  Nothing like a pretty mystery to keep you perusing the internet too long trying to identify a new tree.

I have a few fellow arborists that play the game with me when we find something new.  We help each other out with suggestions when we hit a dead end on something a customer asks us about.  We’ve gotten pretty good at most of the native Florida trees, not bad at many of the US trees that linger here but it’s the tropical exotics that can really throw you for a loop.   There are just so many of them!  And often they’re just downright weird.

Ladies, you know how to trap a man don’t you?  Present him something with mystery and beauty at the same time.

Mother Nature sure got me.

I ran into one of these a couple months ago that just kept nagging at me.   She was a new tree planted near the site of a new commercial building site so I figured it must have been planned, right?   And she not only looked attractive in a strange sort of way, but some would even call her exotic and pretty.
The tree was about 8 ft. high, most of the trunk and limbs are red, the leaves are alternate and she bears a very distinctive large, 8-lobed star-figure leaf.   Not only that but the fruit is also very distinctive:  twenty-five or so spiky balls on a pyramidal shaped stalk.  Surely this had to be easy to identify.

But no, three weeks, four weeks later I still had not been able to find it.  Not that I had spent a lot of time looking, but I had spent a little time and nothing was coming up.  It was nagging me.   The closest resemblance of the leaf and tree was to a papaya.  But papayas typically only have 5-lobed star figure leaves and their lobes are further divided into additional sections.   This clearly wasn’t a papaya as the fruit wasn’t anything close to even a young papaya.   It slightly resembles a tropical manihot, also called cassava (whose powder is used to make tapioca) which can be occasionally found in Florida.  The manihot is shaped like a star, but has separate leaflets, not one leaf like this mystery plant.    The fruits looked vaguely like something from the Soapberry family – like litchi nuts, lognan (Chinese ‘dragon-eye’) and rambutan all native to Malaysia and Thailand – each with hairy, spiky extensions.  You have to squeeze the peel to be able to enjoy the sweet fruit inside of them.

I tried looking it up on all sorts of tree identification tools on the internet but nothing was coming up to match my memory of what this tree looked like.  I was missing a few details to fill in on the id tool, so one evening I finally said to myself “That’s it.  I’m going over and looking at that thing until I figure out if it’s a cousin of these Soapberries or what!”

So intent as a detective could be, for the sake of science (more like my personal obsession with this tree), I went over to the site and looked at this thing again.  Despite it not looking appealing to grab one of the spiky balls (for sure it would prick like ten needles), I decided to do so anyway and was pleasantly surprised they weren’t that sharp.  To see if it was in this Soapberry family, I squeezed it like I squeeze a litchi or a dragon’s eye.

Sure enough out popped . . . something.

It wasn’t a sweet looking fruit though.  It was some kind of nut or bean. Often I get a clue from smelling the fruits or leaves of trees so I did that and didn’t notice anything recognizable.  Then, not unlike a fateful stupid decision to kiss a femme fatale, I decided to bite the nut to see if it would have a flavor I recognized.  And that was the decision that nearly killed me.

Just a little nutty.  Nothing real obvious.  She seemed so innocent.  Ai yai yai.

But I noticed all the details of the small tree and its leaves and headed back to my computer.  I tried more  key word searches of all sorts and still nothing was clicking.

It must have been about forty minutes later that I finally found a site called Invasive Florida Species.  Scrolling down the photos of these troublesome plants I finally thought I spotted the characteristic star shaped leaf.   Yes!   There it was!  And there were the very distinctive fruit – nuts I had opened.    Despite it being right on a corner as if planted there, looking pretty as could be, this thing hadn’t been planted at all.  It was considered a weedy plant, spread by ants.

Well then I started reading.  Oh yeah, I remembered a little about this member of the Euphorbiaceae family.   And oh yeah I remembered something else about it from its species name, Ricinus communis.   Something not good.   I kept reading.  O my God, this is where the name ricin came from, a substance I remember now being a poison.    I kept reading, a little nervously.  Ricin is one of if not the deadliest natural poisons that exists.  Turns out that the Guiness Book of World Records in 2007 had named this tree, the castor bean tree, as the most toxic tree in the world!  I remember now that some “terrorist” had sent ricin in the mail as a murder attempt.   And a Bulgarian dissident novelist living in London back in 1978, Georgi Markov, after publishing novels of spy intrigue and political attacks of the Communist government in his homeland, had been pricked in the dark by the point of a spy’s umbrella with ricin in it and had died in three days.   I guess he couldn’t avoid the opportunity to end his life like one of his novels.

And I had just been biting on the seeds where the ricin is concentrated !  But ricin is 6000 times more poisonous than cyanide!  Holy crap!

I kept reading.  Yes this is where castor oil came from, but that was after the toxicity had been extracted from it by heating over 176 degrees Fahrenheit.   Yes castor oil is used for everything from jet fuel to lubricant to paint to nylon and fertilizer.   But I didn’t care about that now.

The poison doesn’t kick in until 2 – 6 hours after ingesting.   Oh great.  I may have just committed suicide because of my famous cat like curiosity.  Sherlock Holmes would have studied this stuff beforehand of course.

First it burns on any skin it touches, then abdominal pain, then vomiting, then diarrhea.  Within several days there is severe dehydration, a decrease in urine and a decrease in blood pressure often followed by death.

I kept reading.   Turns out a high concentration kills mice.  One bean can kill  a child.  Or a rabbit.   One milligram can kill an adult. If you aren’t dead in 3 – 5 days you should recover.  Oh great news.

The ricin poison is in low concentrations throughout the plant, but the worst of its concentration is in cracking the bean’s surface shell which I definitely had done when biting it.  I had briefly tasted it and spit it out.  I hadn’t swallowed any of it so maybe I was ok, but I had drunk some coffee after it and maybe it washed some down? Oh how dumb!#  Here I am three hours later and my lips are definitely feeling a little tingly and numb.  Sheesh.  If I live through this, I think I’ve learned something about biting on the seeds of strange trees because I was curious to know what they were!

I do think I need to take a shower to wash off any residue.  Then go to bed.  Wish me the best . . .

                                                                   *                                 *                                 *
I slept peacefully for two hours.  But then I woke up around 2:15 am feeling a vibration emanating from my upper abdominal area around the solar plexus.   Oh sheesh, here it was.  It was close to the vomiting reflex and I could feel that sensation being just around the corner.  I hadn’t vomited for more than twenty years.  This poison was awfully strong if less than a drop on my tongue was causing all this!  I had already seen online earlier that there was no antidote.   I  wasn’t afraid, because there was nothing I could do.   I realized I just had to ride this thing through, or maybe call an ambulance if it got worse and hope it wasn’t my last arborist adventure.

My lower chest and upper abdomen were tightening and vibrating, all the way out to my finger tips.  I got online to look for anything that might dilute it or alleviate it.  But my fingers were vibrating so much I could hardly type!  This was definitely freaky.

I checked out “ask a nurse” sites.  I had used one helpfully twenty years ago.  But I mostly found that today they have been discontinued because they were creating far too many calls and costing hospitals far too much money.  Some could be accessed but they cost – and by now I seriously doubted there was anything they could tell me I didn’t already know or couldn’t find online. Oh there were plenty of reassuring warnings, like  “Seriously consider calling 911.”  or “You may need intravenous feeding” or “If your lungs are clogging, you will need ventilation to help breathe.”   Sheesh!   Fortunately I hadn’t breathed any powder and I was breathing fine.  That sounds like the worst.

As I sat there with an increasingly tightening abdomen and chest, I read that there was some hope in the fact that the most lethal exposure was by injection into the bloodstream like the umbrella murder, second worst was inhalation of the refined powder (which wasn’t what I had experienced) and third most dangerous was ingestion.  But I had only cracked it on two teeth and spat it out.  My lips still tingled there.  At least it was a little calming to read that the stomach didn’t easily uptake the poison. The recipe for adult  suicide looked like chewing and swallowing two beans.

I closely monitored my body’s uncomfortable and somewhat painful vibration and tightening.   Fortunately after about forty minutes the effects started to lessen.  I slowly came out of it and made my way back to bed.  I slept well till morning.  Thankfully I had eeked my way through.

The moral of the story?!    Don’t go kissing alluring femmes fatales and likewise don’t go biting mysterious pretty trees! (and P.S. after a near death experience it feels especially good to be alive  <smile> ) .




The Carpenter Ants Killed My Trees, He Said

4 August 2014  Idea of the day “Strenuousness is the path of immortality, sloth the path of death.  Those who are strenuous do not die; those who are slothful are as if dead already.”     Guatama Siddhartha, the Buddha

Have you ever noticed in the middle of a mystery, with no information, people will pick the darndest explanations.  Any explanation is better than none to them.

Today I had a favorite property manager call me.
“Hey Bob, you know out at Oak Meadow where you pruned everything last summer?” she asked.
“Sure.”  I remembered it well, up against an undisturbed lowland area (you might call it a swamp here in Florida!) full of interesting varieties of trees not always seen around the developed areas of the county.
“Well the owner at 113 is telling me two trees behind his place just suddenly died.  He says he thinks its the carpenter ants he sees around that did it and he wants them taken down and out of there right away.”
I laughed softly.
“Just so you know Kay, carpenter ants don’t kill trees.   In the insect world they’re the parallels to vultures in the animal kingdom. They just clean up the dead decaying wood once it’s died,” I explained.
“Well he’s worried they’re going to kill the rest of his trees in his back yard.  Can you take a look at them and calm him down?” she pleaded.
“No problem.  I remember his townhome.  I’m pretty sure I already know what it is.   But I’ll go up and look at it,” I replied.
“Thanks!  Send me an estimate for the removals and whatever you find!”
“I sure will,” I assured her.

It was always an interesting trip to the north part of the county because the winter weather was enough different from the south part of the county, that the species of native trees were noticeably different up here.   More pines, fewer exotic tropical trees.  More hardwoods like maples and sweet gum and red bay, fewer palms.   More northern species that weren’t common in semi-tropical climates.

I got up to the community and drove to the address.  I was 99% sure what I was going to find.  I walked behind the unit and yes, there they were just as I remembered them – except sadly they were brown and  dead this time.  It was the two red bay trees that had been alive last summer and now had all the leaves brown and still on the tree.  They would stay that way for a while before they fell.

If you have been following my blog you know the story behind these.  This was the laurel wilt fungus that clogs up the vascular system of the tree so it can’t get water and nutrients up from the roots to the upper canopy and leaves.  The fungus is brought there by the red bay ambrosia beetle, a particular ambrosia beetle that was almost unheard of in the United States ten years ago. But then some shipment from China had them infested in shipping pallets and they deported at the port in Savannah, GA.   They took the fungus they carry to the local bay trees and that laurel wilt fungus killed them all.   Then they headed south looking for more red bays to infest.

In five years they reached Central Florida and you would be very hard pressed today to find a live red bay in the Orlando to Tampa Bay area.  It’s amazing how the beetles seek out and find only that species.   Well almost only that species.  They don’t like a cousin of the red bay as much, but they also go for the avocado trees occasionally.   Somebody must have taken a load of infested shipping palettes south because they recently jumped the map and showed up down near Ft. Lauderdale close to the center of the Florida avocado industry.  The growers are pretty worried down there about this beetle wiping out avocadoes in the state, the second biggest fruit crop after oranges.

I looked at the trees and sure enough there was the characteristic orange frass that the beetles had forced out as they bored into the tree sprinkled like powder all along the crevices of the trunk.  And yes there were now a few carpenter ants cleaning up the dead wood.

The resident saw me taking notes and walked over.
“Hey what do you think killed these bay trees? ” he inquired.
“Well I don’t ‘think’ I said.  I know,” I said joking around.
“Yeah, me too!”he laughed.  “It’s those damn carpenter ants,” talking cockily.
I had to tell him how it wasn’t the carpenter ants.  He was crestfallen!
“Well then some kind of a bug . . .  I mean look at all those wood shavings,” he pointed out observantly.
“Technically not a bug, but the fungus that the beetle carried here.”  And I told him the rest of the story.
“That’s a shame he said.  They were a different tree back here.   And my wife used the leaves in cooking to flavor our curry dishes and other spiced dishes.”
“Yeah they’re real good for that,” I agreed, “Gourmets love bay leaves for flavoring, even if these aren’t the classic bay leaves, they do work close enough.  But I guess now you’ll have to buy them in the grocery store.”
I explained to him how the carpenter ants were not going to attack the rest of his trees, hollies, cypress and oaks.  He sighed.
“Well that’s a relief!”
First job accomplished.

After doing the removal calculations I did a little walk around the property.  I was impressed with what a good job our guys had done the previous summer.  The trees had been beautifully pruned, they still were well clear of buildings, driveways, sidewalks and roads and still had very little dead wood in them.  Nothing like some of the obviously over pruned trees  you sometimes see after a property has been mishandled by a company of untrained tree trimmers.   These trees looked natural and you couldn’t even tell they had been pruned.  It was the difference between a top salon haircut and a quick buzz cut from a buddy in the dorm in college.  The owner of the company had said having our experienced arborists prune the trees was like having a veteran surgeon perform an operation compared to an aspiring pre-med student who had to do it out in the hinterlands because no one else was around.  Not so pretty.  And more than a little dangerous!

But the walkaround did show up some interesting items.   I found 4 more dead red bays, although right at the edge of the lowland brush areas.   I found a dead maple at the same edge border.  Maples like being next to water like this lowland area but this one just hadn’t made it. It was about 35 ft. high so maybe it was just old age.   At any rate I was going to recommend it be removed before it fell on a building.  And then I saw the usual number one invasive plant in Florida, Brazilian pepper, growing aggressively into the lawn areas from the brush.  I wouldn’t mind if that species went extinct.  I heard an old Florida lady the other day call it “Florida holly” as if it were something desirable! Made me laugh.  The stuff doesn’t stop growing and overtakes entire landscapes if unchecked.  The only way to permanently get rid of it is to have a licensed pesticide company re-cut the stumps and within 15 minutes apply the right herbicide before it grows back a protective shield.

I also found a few laurel oaks which in just one year had already developed more dead wood over driveways.  That needed to come out.  One broken limb of that 2″ diameter size could put a $700 dent in the cars parked below it.  And it’s summer storm season.  People have to be forewarned about how this dead wood will blow out and break off in windstorms.  Sometimes even overly top-heavy live limbs will break off – good reason to not over prune the center part of limbs.  That just causes excessive growth at the tips (called lions tailing) which then acts like a sail in windstorms and greatly increases the chances of limbs breaking.  And that’s not even mentioning the fact that this kind of incorrect “center pruning” also keeps limbs spindly and thin because of no nutrients going to the main parts of the limbs.  Instead they grow long and skinny and snap prematurely.  So don’t let anybody prune your trees like that, low and out of the center of the tree.  Trees need inner foliage to act as a dampener in wind.   Proper pruning takes place at the tips and takes weight off the ends.   That way limbs grow thick and strong and aren’t nearly as likely to whip and break off  in wind.

So I wrapped up all my suggestions, put it into my laptop proposal and shot it off to the property manager.  They’re only suggestions of course but with the reasoning I put in, the associations usually take a large portion of my recommendations so they won’t have liability problems through the storm season.  And dead red bays can be a liability, although usually they are smaller and not as dangerous for example as a huge dead oak.  At least I keep them informed and aware.  And calm them when they worry the carpenter ants are killing their trees. 🙂





The Mystery of How to Plant a Tree So It Survives!

2 August 2014  Idea of the day “The more artificial taboos and restrictions there are in the world, the more the people are impoverished.  The more that laws and regulations are given prominence, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”  Lao Tzu

“Those trees you sold us were bad!  They’re already dying!  Your guarantee covers replacing them of course, right?” said one of my angry customers on the other side of the phone a month after I had planted some trees for him.  My eyes rolled.  Oh boy, how many times have I heard that false accusation?  Actually only a few, but each time is one too many.

As a responsible arborist I have to realize I must not have communicated well enough.   Even when it’s written on the estimate in capital letters you still have to talk to each customer personally and directly about their newly planted trees.  I probably was super busy and somehow missed doing it with John.

“I’m sorry to hear that John.  Did you read the note on the estimate about this?”
“Note? What the heck note are you talking about?” he asked hostilely.
“Can you pull out your estimate?”  I asked him.
“Oh I guess it’s in the file cabinet here some place,” he said in an irritated tone.
“Well that’s good.  Pull it out and read that bottom paragraph.”

There was a sound of sliding metal as he opened the file cabinet and started looking for the original estimate.
“Oh ok, here it is,” he said.  Then it was eerily quiet on the other side of the phone as he read.

I knew exactly what it said.  It was our standard disclaimer.  “We buy the very highest quality trees with the best root systems from the finest farms and plant them exactly correctly.  But we cannot give a guarantee for any of the trees we plant because whether they now survive is entirely dependent on how well you water them.  Newly transplanted trees of this size MUST receive the equivalent of a full 5 gallon bucket of water DAILY for the first six weeks if they are going to survive.  Sprinklers are not nearly enough.  If you use a bubbler you have to make sure it puts out 5 gallons a day.  Then you must water the same amount 3 days a week for the next two months during a summer season, and then ideally once a week for the remaining 8 1/2 months of the first year.  Roots need the water to get fully established in the first year.   If the above is not done, you will see the tree wilt, shrivel, turn brown and die.”

“Oh,” John said.  “I didn’t see that. You should have told us about that.”
“You’re right John, I should have also talked to you about it personally.  I must have been very busy that week and it slipped my mind.”
“I guess they’ve only been getting a daily sprinkling. Well can we still save these trees? ”
“I’d suggest you go into full emergency mode immediately.  Even give them a little extra each day for a week. Maybe they can be saved.  Oaks are pretty hardy. ”
“Wow, planting new trees is a lot of work!” he exclaimed.
“Yep, just like other living things like babies and young toddlers, they take a lot of initial care but then later bring you years of joy on their own if they’ve been raised right in the beginning,” I said with a smile.
“Hmm, I see what you mean.  Well thanks for the tips.   We’ll see you next year for pruning.”
“Oh yeah I’ll tell you then all about the “structural pruning” young trees need.   That’s taking care of them until they’re teenagers if you don’t want a  problem tree in their adult years!”
John laughed.
“Guess I never realized I had a sort of new family when I planted these guys!”

Counties often require that you the homeowner  or association or company plant a number of new trees to replace the ones that had to be removed.   They do this to keep the county tree canopy stable.   This insures continuing high air quality and aesthetics and homes and food for wildlife while also protecting from the wind and erosion in storms and providing noise and light and heat and cold barriers in normal weather.   Or you might just decide you want to plant a tree or two on your own.  If you decide to plant it yourself (or to check up on your maybe not-so-educated landscaper (yes!) who is planting for you) there are some things anybody should know about how to plant a tree correctly so it will have the best chance of surviving.

1) Ideally buy your trees from farms known for the correct nurturing of the roots.  See the previous blog for more information on this.   If you don’t have a farm like this close by, at least knock off some of the dirt from the root ball in the pot to see what shape the roots are in.  Look for star-shaped formations headed horizontally or slightly downward.  Avoid roots that go down, twist around each other or are girdling around the outside of the root ball where they became pot bound.   Also get a tree with strong above ground structure, typically a tree with a strong, vertical central leader with evenly placed scaffold limbs extending from it and vigorous foliage.  (in Florida the best are called FF – Florida Fancy, next acceptable grade is #1)    For a full Power Point presentation of grading in Florida, see  https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=Florida+grade+a+tree

2) Assuming you have a tree of a good quality like the above, the next thing you want to do is remove it from the pot and shave any exterior roots that have started to girdle around the outer circumference of the root ball.  At the same time you want to remove excessive soil off the top of the roots so that the horizontal support roots are exposed to the air.

3) Dig the hole a few inches shallower than the distance from the top roots to the bottom of the root ball.  For example, if that distance is 18″, then only dig a hole 16″.  It often settles once watered.  Especially if the soil is firm, compacted or has clay texture, you want to dig a hole that is twice the diameter of the root ball so that the truncated roots at the edge will be able to grow easily into the surrounding soil.  Once planted, don’t lay anything heavy around the tree’s roots, like construction materials or stones.

4) Plant the tree high so that the top roots are slightly above the soil grade with these roots getting full exposure to the air.

5) Backfill 1/3, then water to eliminate air pockets.   Backfill the next 1/3, water some more.  Backfill the final dirt the final 1/3 and water again.  Don’t add any fertilizer to new transplants.  That can burn the newly cut roots.  Mixing in cured organic compost would be fine (not newly raw manure!).  Make a moat at the top to easily water the tree from here on.

6) Add no more than 2″ of an organic mulch like wood chips or pine needles to keep the soil moist and keep weeds away as well as lawn mowers and weed wackers.  But don’t let the mulch touch the tree trunk, keep it 6″ away so it doesn’t encourage insect colonies, overly damp environments against the bark or smothering of the roots.

7)  If the tree is wobbly, top-heavy or the locale is windy at this season, tie three strap braces to the center of the trunk secured by pegs in the ground.  This will save you from having to re-plant the tree after a windstorm.

8) As mentioned above, prepare to start watering any 6 – 12 ft. tree with 5 gallons of water a day for the first six weeks, 5 gallons three times a week for the next two months and then 5 gallons once a week for the remaining 8 1/2 months of the first year.   Add slightly less or more with smaller or larger trees respectively.  Remember you’re raising a living thing that is going to give you years of enjoyment if you do it right!

Sprinklers hitting tree foliage tends to create fungal growth on the leaves so don’t let it happen.  Some species can’t take direct sunlight for very long in hot climates (like dogwood)  so plant on appropriate north sides of buildings.  Other species need direct sunlight for flowering (like crape myrtles, bougainvillea, many other flowering trees) or so they won’t develop fungus (e.g. Leyland cypress) so don’t plant them under big shade trees.  Also very important in urban environments is pick the right tree for the right space.  Oaks, pines, sweet gum, sycamore, yellow poinciana, hickories, American elm, maples and similar shade trees should NOT be planted in spots where they are closer than 10 ft. to hardscape like sidewalks, driveways, curbs or utility boxes.  If you do, you’re sure to have cracking, uplifted concrete in future years that will be very expensive to repair or worse have to remove the tree prematurely, also at great expense.  And don’t plant a tree that will get very large in a tiny back patio.  It may look “cute” now, but little trees get big and inevitably shed lots of pollen, flowers, fruit and leaves not to mention create invasive roots that could very well be a nightmare in your little space up the road.   Just because a tree comes in a pot doesn’t mean it will be able to stay in that pot very long.  So give trees and their roots lots of space to grow and expand in the future by planting in big enough spaces to start with.  Or plant very small accent ornamental trees and keep them pruned annually so they never get too big.

Hope this will help you have beautiful newly planted trees to enjoy for a long time to come!

The Case of the Distressed Ranch Trees (or How to Buy A Tree)

29 July 2014 Idea of the day “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.”

A friend of mine recently asked me about planting a new tree.  More about that in the next blog.  But it made me realize she first needed to know something about the prior step, how to buy a good tree.   I suddenly realized she and a lot of others should know about what I had found out about buying good trees from a ranch job I had been called about.

As some of you may be aware from a previous story of mine about the palm disease TPPD, I have a customer who owns the largest ranch in a county in mid-Florida.  He was very successful in the business of selling copiers, sold the company and has a beautiful Spanish-looking home overlooking his hacienda which he shares with his wife and visiting kids and grandchildren.  It’s beautiful.

They both love trees and so about three years ago decided to plant a colorful variety of species all around the house grounds, both flowering and usual varieties.  For flowering types they planted magnolias, redbuds, crape myrtles and tabebuia (pink and yellow trumpet trees) as well as a purple glory tree.   The area around the coral-orange-stucco Spanish ranch home is especially beautiful when the flowering trees dotting the yard bloom in rotation all spring long and into the summer.   Usual native trees like rich dark green American holly, weeping yaupon holly, winged elms and live oaks line the three foot brick circumference wall. The entire design was planned to be a large, beautiful tree-filled display all around the house in 360 degrees for  the next twenty years at least.

Except for one thing.  Tom the owner called me up one day.

“Bob, I don’t like the look of my house trees.  It’s their third year after planting and they look less healthy and vigorous this year than they did last year.  Could you come out and take a look at them?”

“Of course,” I said. I knew what he really meant by that was ‘I’m counting on you to come out here and use your detective arborist skills to figure out what the heck is wrong with my trees and fix them!’   I made an appointment right then to see him my first free day which was a Thursday.

Tom lives one and a half hours outside of the city out in Florida citrus country.  In fact, although he houses horses and a donkey and the ranch includes rolling hills, a pond and wide open alfalfa fields, the largest part of the estate is made up of acres and acres of orange groves, the main business of the ranch and one he thoroughly enjoys.  I took the back gravel road to his rear gate where the alfalfa hay customers come in, passed the barns, drove up to the paver driveway at the top of the hill where the elegant house stood, parked and rang the bell at the big iron gates.  Through the black wrought iron I could glimpse the luxurious semi-tropical gardens under a large screen enclosure surrounding a natural looking pool.  It was paradise.

Soon I saw Tom heading to open the gate and come outside to join me.
“Morning Bob,” he said with his usual gentle smile.  “Did you have a smooth trip up?”
“Had to fight going through some of the city morning rush hour traffic but I found some ways around it. It was great to get out to the open road.”
“Yep, that’s why I live out here,” he said smiling coyly. Then his attention shifted outward.  “Let me show you what I’m talking about with these trees.”

He had a good eye.  The trees weren’t dead.  But the magnolia foliage was not as full as you would expect.  Fewer leaves than usual. Some leaned a little. The oaks hadn’t grown as much as you’d expect in three years and some seemed to be listing.  The hollies were ok, but they were smaller.  The almost four-year-old flowering trees looked like they were still two years old – they just weren’t growing up as fast as you’d expect, some tilted and others looked a little lifeless.

“I’m most concerned about the magnolias.  I wonder if I goofed putting them in the lower part of the driveway.  They seem to be sagging the most.”

I had to agree with him.  They had been planted in one of the lowest spots around the yard and were clearly in moist soil after a rain.  Florida sandy soil generally drains well.  But maybe the soil here had more clay in it, which tends to hold water.   We would have to check it out.

I examined the planting of all the trees.  Ninety percent of the time, people plant trees too deeply and these were no exceptions.  The top roots need to be exposed to the oxygen in the air.   They need oxygen to digest the carbohydrates sent down from the photosynthesis factories in the leaves.

Who planted the trees?” I asked.

“The landscaping company that sold them to me.”

“Hmmm,” I mused.

“What’s that mean?” he asked a little anxiously.

“When trees get planted too deeply like these did, water typically flows down into the roots, they get too moist and can develop fungi.  In a worst case scenario, the roots then start to rot.”

Tom protested.
“But they are a landscaping company.  Don’t they know how to plant trees?”

“You’d be surprised.  Were they from the city or local.”

“Local.  I don’t even know if they’re still in business.  Why?”  he asked.

“Small country companies can be less knowledgeable about technical details than a company that has to routinely meet large city client standards.

But here’s what I see.  Our last two years have been normal precipitation years, no drought and no floods particularly, and I wouldn’t expect excessively wet soil on top of a hill like here where the house is.  Structurally the trees look fine  above ground which means they were probably Florida Grade #1, but this is a designation which only rates their above ground quality. I don’t see any signs of insects or leaf fungus.  You have nice mulch beds around all the trees so they’ve been protected against mower and weed wacker damage and are less likely to be sprayed by a harmful pesticide for weeds.    In addition the mulch helps keep competing weeds and grasses down, so I don’t suspect nutrient competition from those in your case.

“Besides,” he added “I’ve had all the trees fertilized once a year.”

“Yep, that should be more than satisfactory for young trees,” I assured him. I didn’t really see any signs of the obvious damage one would see from pesticides,  but I had to check all possibilities. “Do your lawn people use spray or liquid pesticides?”

“No, I’ve told them to stay away from the house with pesticides and herbicides.  I have them pull weeds.”

“Good for you,” I said nodding. “Well  we have a bit of a mystery at this point.  But here’s what we need to do.  I want to check out the soil, see if a foot down it’s full of clay and water and what the roots look like.  I’m going to have one of my men come up in a few days with an air spade.”

“What’s that?” he inquired.

“It’s a wand driven by an air compressor that “digs” up the dirt around a tree with air pressure without hurting the roots.  It will let us see if it’s all wet a foot down or what.  We’ll see whether the soil is sandy, which would mean good drainage, or  intermediate loamy which would be all right, or full of clay and holding water. And we’ll get to see if we have rotten roots.”

“Ok, let’s do it,” he said.  I wrote up the Work Order estimate, he signed it and we made plans for the air spade work the following Monday.

That Monday afternoon I was in my office when I got a call from the air spade guy.  Of course I was  curious.
“Well, is it soaking wet clay and water down there with rotting roots?”

“Nope,” he said.  “Pretty sandy soil. Pretty dry. The roots aren’t rotting. But you wouldn’t believe what I’m finding with the roots.”

“What?” I asked pointedly.

“It’s hard to describe.  I’m just going to send you some photos by my cell phone,” he said.

“Can you do it right away?”  I urged.

“Sure. I’ve air spaded about fifteen trees.  They all have the same look.  You’ll be amazed.”

Tapping my fingers on my desk, I waited until the photos finally arrived. One, two, three popped up.  Every one was from a viewpoint above the roots looking down.  Every one showed twisted, girdled roots wrapped around and choking each other. Instead of a nice open star-shaped spreading root pattern like you would see in nature, the roots looked like a mass of knotted rope!

I called Tom right away.

“I just got the photo results from the air spading.  I found your problem. I’ll come up tomorrow to show you and explain it all.  It’s tougher without a tree in front of us.”

“Sure, I’ll see you tomorrow morning!”

*          *           *
I arrived the next morning and Tom was already out in the yard.
“I’ve been looking at the excavating that your man did. But I don’t quite see the problem,” he said.

I took him over to one of the magnolias he was most concerned about.

“See those convoluted, twisted roots?” I asked.

“Yeah, isn’t that normal?”

“It might be “normal” when you buy trees from the nursery the landscapers use.  But it’s not normal or natural in nature,” I told him.  “Tree roots not only need unrestricted flow to transfer water and nutrients but they need to spread out like a star to create good support for the tree.  You see all those trees that are leaning?  That’s because they don’t have adequate root support.  The ball of roots is rocking in the soil.  And these trees aren’t getting the nutrients and water they need because the girdling, twisted roots are acting like tourniquets and cutting off their ability to flow!”

“But how did they get like this?” Tom asked intently.

“I did some study last night.  Five years ago, to answer that kind of question that was coming as a complaint more often, the University of Florida started research of nursery practices.  They found that nurseries are creating poor root structure in their new trees.   Most critically they are damaging roots by keeping them in closed pots too long.  The roots hit the side of the pot, start circling or girdling the other roots and get all twisted up. The nursery finally switches to a larger pot.  They grow again and six months or a year later the roots hit the sides of this new closed pot and the same girdling occurs further out.  This can happen three or four times before the tree ends up in the pot that it gets sold in. With all the soil around it, you can’t see what the roots are like inside the root ball, even if you take it out of the pot.

Unfortunately today 95% of nurseries do nothing special to ensure natural star-shaped root growth and so have this problem unless they are sold fast.  If you buy from a usual nursery, you have about a 50/50 chance of getting a tree with bad root structure that will leave you with a wilting tree in three years.  You can shave (and should) the worst of the circling roots on the outside of the ball to somewhat improve the structure but apparently your landscaper didn’t even do that.  But this recommended practice doesn’t do anything to change the previous girdled roots at the previous smaller pot sizes.  So when you plant the tree, it might look fine for the first two years as the tree uses the nutrients in the root ball and before the roots are too big to start choking each other.  It’s common to see this type of problem about the third year, just as you are seeing now.”

“You mean I paid about $100,000 to buy these trees and have them all planted and you’re telling me they were defective from the start and not even planted right – too deep and not root-shaved?!” Tom asked astonished.

“I’m afraid so,” I said morosely.  “I guess you could sue the landscaper.  But they’ll say it was the nursery’s fault, that they didn’t know they were being sold trees with defectivce root systems. The nursery will say they just do what everybody else does. Sadly they’re almost right.

Because of problems like this, in the last few years a handful of tree farms who have followed the research science closely are doing what you have to do to develop great root systems in tree nurseries.

The procedures required include  (1) introducing special root fungi at initial seed start up to maximize the roots’ ability to absorb water and nutrients, (2) using special containers called “air pots” with lattice spaces throughout so the roots don’t hit walls and girdle but instead self-prune when they go through a hole and hit the air which encourages root branching back to the stem (3) shaving outer roots at every pot size transfer and (4) taking the soil off the top lateral roots to expose the top support roots to the oxygen they need  instead of getting smothered.

The bottom line, Tom, is unless you buy your trees from one of these ACT or RPG associated farms that is known to really follow all the above procedures, you run a high chance of buying a tree that may look pretty and structurally sound above the ground to earn even a Florida Grade #1 designation, but whose root system is headed for failure about the third year after planting.  I wish we had known you then. But truthfully, this science was barely known back then, so even if we had known you we may not have been able to prevent this.”

Tom stared into space digesting this costly shock.  Fortunately he could probably absorb it financially – but it was still a huge loss.  And how much more was it going to take to fix the bad trees?

“So do I need to remove all these trees?” he asked.

“I talked your situation over with a few colleagues last night and here is what we concluded.  First of all, not every one of the new trees has a bad root system, even if a majority do.  Secondly, we will prune the worst of the choking roots now when we have them exposed which will give them a little better chance. Third, let us apply liquid organic compost and liquid minerals to help their vigor. Fourth, we’re going to air-spade remove the smothering “volcanic mulching” they shoved against the trunks keeping the roots from getting oxygen.   But the cost to replace the trees is so expensive that we’d recommend you just watch them closely and only replace the ones that get very distressed or start to lean too weakly.  The strongest ones might just find a way to recover.”

“I guess that’s what I’ll do.  Sounds the most reasonable.  Well thanks for all your detective work,” Tom said shaking my hand and simultaneously still shaking his head in disbelief.  What a lesson.

I hope you, the tree-buying public, can use this knowledge to improve your chances of getting not only a structurally Grade #1 tree above-ground but also an excellent root system below-ground so your tree will survive strong and vigorously for years. Find out from an experience, informed organic arborist who knows who the best root farms are in your area where to buy your trees from – or take your chances.  If you can’t find such a farm nearby, your next best option is to study online what a good root system looks like and then knock off some dirt from the root ball of a tree you want to buy to see what the root structure looks like.



Reuters misunderstands death of George Harrison pine tree in Griffith Park

22 July 2014  Idea of the day “True self-discovery begins where your comfort zone ends.” Adam Braun, author of The Promise of a Pencil

Reuters newswire just reported that a pine tree planted in 2001 in Griffith Park in Los Angeles to commemorate the passing of the Beatle George Harrison was killed by pine bark beetles.  Kinda ironic beetles would get a Beatle tree, eh?

Except they got it wrong, like many people do who assume that beetles are often the nasty critters that kill trees. But these insects are usually being maligned!

Occasionally there is the rare case of a beetle, for example the exotic red bay ambrosia beetle imported from China which has “killed” red bay trees from Savannah, Georgia, (where it first entered the country via pallets at the port used for shipping) all the way down to Miami-Dade County.  Here is one of the last living red bays in the Tampa Bay area I saw on a bicycle ride this morning still living but being attacked by the red bay ambrosia beetle.  I’m going to miss the red bays.  When you crack its leaves you get a wonderful spicy, pungent aroma used in exotic food recipes known as “bay spice”.
One of the last red bays in Tampa Bay still alive but being attacked by ambrosia beetle  2nd red bay mostly dead from laurel wilt
A first cousin to the red bay tree, the avocado tree, is also attacked by this bug – although the beetle prefers red bays –   and the entire avocado industry in southern Florida is currently in worried battle against it, very concerned that the Florida avocado industry could go extinct because of the invader.  After oranges, avocados are the second biggest fruit industry in Florida.

In this case it is a fungus that actually kills the tree, not the beetle.  But the ambrosia beetle brings the laurel wilt fungus with it, is attracted to the red bay, swamp pay, sassafras and avocado trees (all members of the Laurel tree family), bores into and injects the fungi into the trees which clog up its veins and vessels (xylem and phloem), making it impossible for the tree to uptake enough water and minerals and killing them within five to eleven weeks.

But in this case, the pine bark beetles were just doing their job – cleaning up decayed wood in the environment.  It’s a similar function to vultures cleaning up decaying carrion in the environment.  Vultures didn’t cause the death of the animals, they’re just the garbage crew.

The actual cause of the death of the George Harrison pine tree was the drought that California has been going through for years.  Once the 12 ft. young tree succumbed to the lack of water, the pine bark beetles could smell it was dead and came in to clean up.  Another tree is planned to be planted for Harrison in the same spot.

So don’t be so ready to blame tree death on Beatles . . . errr I mean . . . beetles!

To GMO or not to GMO

21 July 2014  Idea of the day “A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”  George Bernard Shaw

Today’s blog is only about trees from a related issue. But I’m hearing more and more concern about GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) in articles and talk so I thought a quick note was worthwhile to add a little sanity to the discussion.

The related issue is the extensive use of Roundup weed killer we have seen kill trees.  It is also the most popular weed killer used by agricultural concerns primarily on GMO sugar beets, feed corn, soy and wheat crops.  Papaya is another high use crop.   Roundup residue and its after-compounds are showing up in these main foods of the Western diet because these GMO crops are “protected” from pests by the Roundup but supposedly not affected by it.

The controversy rages among the contending sides from fanatical GMO protesters to just as fanatical agricultural business defenders.  In November 2013 54% of Washington state residents believed the business interests’ claims that food would go way up in price if GMO labeling was required and thus the voters turned down an initiative to require labelling of GMO foods.

The true facts at this stage are somewhere in the middle.

1) You can always find a study that fits your pre-conceived idea.  But it is still debatable that GMO’s in themselves are harmful.  In fact they seem to be solving some real problems in creative ways. Others say there is no actual increase in productivity because the GMO crops require so much more expense in energy, fertilizers, water and pesticides and their cultivation has horrible side effects.  Search out the stories yourself.

2) The real problem seems to be first with the Roundup and other similar glyphosate compounds which the chemical companies claim are the “ideal safe pesticide” that won’t hurt the GMO plant because of a gene added to resist the glyphosate.   Recent studies are proving otherwise.   See www.higher-health.org/2013/06/monsantos-roundup-linked-to-autism.html   Roundup inhibits necessary key enzymes in our bodies which detoxify foreign chemicals the body ingests.  The resulting vulnerability has been linked to subsequent occurences of obesity, autism, Parkinson’s, heart disease, depression, infertility and cancer.   For example, prior to Roundup the rate of autism in the general population was 1 in 10,000 in 1970.  Today it is 1 in 68.  Specifically, the graph of the increase in the use of Roundup exactly corresponds to the increase in autism.   There is a large study being done on Roundup that is due to be completed and results announced  in 2015.  Additionally, while it is still the herbicide of choice for many  farmers, overuse is now creating superweeds increasingly resistant to it.   A better solution clearly needs to be found.

3) The successful organic bacterium strains of Bt have been successfully used to  get crops to ward off insects themselves.  But the introduction of GMO’s has made some of the Bt strains now become toxic because of the  genetic changes.

4) Another real concern about the introduction of GMO’s has been the large  food companies using their patented GMO seeds to take over the food supply and not allow farmers to save their seed for the next season.  This makes them less able to survive financially as the big corporate giants get bigger.   This problem is made worse by the fact that even if you don’t use the GMO seed, their genetic material drifts in the wind, “infects” other crop lands and suddenly they claim you are legally required to buy your seed from the large patent-holding corporations.  This has put farmers in developing countries like Mexico and India out of business.  Additionally once a farmer commits to GMO’s, the special herbicides are required so that chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow and Bayer benefit hugely.

5) Europe has for a long time refused to allow GMO’s.  This was not because of any overreaching wisdom of the European governments or its people, but turns out to have been more the result of an agricultural trade war with the United States ever since World War II.  Europe understandably didn’t want the big US companies controlling its food supply.   But now the original US companies’ GMO patents are starting to expire. European scientists and their large companies are starting to develop a European GMO system of their own so they can control their food supply and make a lot of money themselves.

There is some evidence that GMO’s might be raising crop yields.  But at what expense remains a serious question as indicated above.  Ultimately the best solution will benefit the largest portion of the global environment – crop yields, ecological health, waterways, animal life and human populations – not just special interests like a few large food and chemical corporations.

A Big Laurel Oak in Strange Trouble

14 July 2014  Idea of the day “The way to crush the bourgeoisie middle-class is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation.”   Vladimir Lenin

On various early mornings and summer evenings I ride my bicycle on a nice ride of a few miles to a local park, around the lake a few times and back.  It’s always interesting to me to watch the trees change with the seasons.  There is almost always a tree I hadn’t noticed before, or hadn’t immediately recognized, that then from that point on becomes a friend.

Such were the two young twin trees, sitting along the bank of the lake, occasionally covered by high water.  They had been barren all winter and spring and were hard to identify without foliage.  I wondered if they were dead.  But sure enough in late spring they started sprouting green.  Without the leaves I really didn’t know what they were.  After close examination each week, and finally seeing the little helicopter-blade seed pods called samaras (similar to those on maples but smaller) appearing on the branches, I realized they were young white ash.  Now I watch my new friends like a hawk for changes.  Indeed they are late bloomers, even here in a semi-tropical climate.

But it was on a ride back after the sun had set one recent summer evening that even in the dusk I realized a large oak I passed (one that I had taken for granted for years) had something weird going on with it. It didn’t feel healthy, even in the dark.  There were spider webs in big balls on some branch tips.  I made a mental note to check it out in the daylight.

A few days later I went by and sure enough it was looking very distressed with maybe 80% of its leaves brown.  It was a large laurel oak, about 45 inches in diameter.  I have observed in Central Florida that the diameter in inches measured at breast height often was a pretty good indicator of the number of years old the laurel oaks were.   This species in this climate grows about an inch a year – unless it or the grass around it has been fertilized extensively over the years which causes it to grow extra fast.  In those cases you have to take from 10% to 30% off your age guess.

But this neighborhood had homes built around the late 1960’s and early 1970’s so 45 years wasn’t a bad estimate at all.  And in an urban environment laurel oaks only live to be about 45 – 55 years old.  Then they typically start losing their leaves at the tips.  I call it “tree balding”, just like our heads lose their hair.  A little later limbs start dying, especially if they’ve been over pruned or otherwise injured. Then the limbs start falling and all of a sudden the homeowner is aware of the tree’s decline because larger limbs start falling on the roof or vehicles below. (In contrast, the laurel oak’s cousin, the Southern live oak, can live to be 300 years old!)
Here is a photo of what I saw.
Dying oak tree

I decided to knock on the door and talk to the residents to find out if they had any clues as to whether this tree which had been green a month ago had had any shocks that  might have caused it to suddenly have 80% of its leaves brown with spider web balls in some of the branches.

A young woman  answered the door with a pleasant smile.   I introduced myself as an arborist that rides his bicycle past the home regularly and had noticed the tree suddenly looking in bad condition.  It turned out they were an Albanian family and the father, Mark, the owner of the home, spoke broken English but  understood me well.  His daughter Alba and her husband John spoke excellent English.

“Yes!  We’re worried about our tree!” Alba exclaimed.  “It’s just suddenly gone downhill and we’re so sad. It shades the house and is our only large tree on the property and we don’t want to lose it.  What could it be?!”

“I’m curious too,” I told her.  “Do you mind if I examine it a bit?” I asked.

“No, please go ahead!” she responded immediately.   John pointed to another laurel oak across the street.

“That one looks strong.   Why is it so healthy and this one’s not?”

I smiled and tapped him on his muscular chest.

“Same reason you look so strong and healthy.  You’re young just like that tree.   Your tree here is like your grandfather!”  He smiled in understanding.

I looked up.  My first suspicion was a lightening strike.  Lightning damage can quickly send a tree into decline if the tree already has other weaknesses.  This was the summer lightning season and the Tampa Bay area is one of the most active lightning areas in the United States.  (Nonetheless, I had recently seen an article interviewing the president of the National Lightning Safety Council Richard Kithil denying like many locals claim that Tampa is the lightning capital of the country.  He said strikes actually vary each year from city to city. Other hotbeds include Houston, the arc from North Carolina to New Orleans, New England, the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains.  There really is no single way to quantify it  precisely.  Strikes? Strokes? Storm days? Deaths?  Intensity?   How do you measure? The number of days of thunderstorms DOES put the Tampa Bay area at the top but that doesn’t necessarily mean the most lightning.  But the area of the most ground flash density each year is usually in the Southwest area of Florida between Orlando, Tampa and Fort Myers.)

I continued looking far up into the 60 ft. high grand old laurel oak.  I walked round and round it with my neck craned upwards and my eyes searching.  Not only could I not find any typical wound anywhere in the upper or lower canopy, but there was absolutely no sign of the classic tell tale exit wound near the base of the tree where lightning almost always goes to ground.

“I don’t think it’s a lightning strike that caused this.  I don’t see any physical wound whatsoever.”

“Well what else could it be?” John wondered.

Especially with my recent case of finding oak leaves going brown like this being caused by the over-used weed killing chemical Metsulfuron Methyl, I asked them if they or any yard man had been spraying weed killers around the lawn or tree.

“No, no,” Mark the father said. “We don’t like to use chemicals on the plants or the grass.”  The other two nodded in agreement.

“Well good for you.”   I looked again at the overall age of the tree and then did a close examination of the roots at the base and I found it.

“Look at this,” I said pointing at roots on the far side of the tree.  There in front of us were three roots which were split, decayed and rotten.   I squatted down next to them and pulled a bit of the upper decayed wood away, uncovering a moving, squirming mass of brown and white gooey figures inside the root.

“EEEK! YUCK!” Alba shrieked.  Under the dead wood I had pulled away were at least two varieties of scavenger insects, including termites swarming in the wood like worms.

“They’re just doing their job of cleaning up the dead wood in the environment,” I said.  “You know who killed this tree?”

“Who? Who?” they all asked together ready to chase down and berate the perpetrator.

I smiled.

“Well . . .  you did,” I stated matter-of-factly.

“What, what?” Alba said a little thrown off. “We would never kill this tree. We love it!”  John nodded while frowning, as did Mark.

” Yes, I’m sure you have loved the tree.  But here’s how it happened.  There is almost never one thing that kills a tree.  Strong trees will even resist lightning strikes.  It takes an accumulation of several stressors, similar to the way a person’s health deteriorates from eating the wrong foods, not doing work they like, not exercising, having money worries, fighting with a relative, not getting enough sleep.  Then suddenly a bug comes around and they’re sick.

First, the tree was getting older with less energy reserves to fight back stressors.  Secondly, see how you let the grass grow right up to the trunk base with no mulch bed around it to protect it from lawn mowers and weed wackers?  Thirdly when you let grass grow that close around a tree, it competes with the tree for nutrients in the soil.  The grass robs the tree of some of its water, minerals and organic compost left by leaves, worms and insects so the tree’s energy reserves and immune system isn’t as strong as it could be.”

I pointed back at the decaying, split roots.

“So when you were mowing the grass, you didn’t see the roots or bother to avoid them.   See where this root was hit here, this root was cut here and they let in fungi and decay.  There’s even a newly sliced root here from the mower.  Roots are vital transmitters of water and nutrients so when they get decayed and dead like these, so-called “root disease” sets in, the insects sense it and that puts the tree under stress for real.

Finally, the hot summer weather just began three weeks ago, creating extra pulling demands for water up from the roots up through the limbs and out through the leaves.  It’s perspiring, except in a tree arborists call it “transpiration”.  The tree needs extra water in the summer but its aging, decaying root system is no longer able to pull up all the water and nutrients it needs – and so you see the leaves going 80% brown and the tree dying just like you’ve seen it do.”

“Oh nooo!” Alba moaned. “Isn’t there something you can do?”

“Yes, there are some things I can do.  First of all start giving it lots of extra water.  Then pull all the grass and weeds away from the trunk in a four foot radius at least all around it.  Put about 2″ of mulch on top to hold the water in, keep the weeds down and keep the machinery away.  Then I can give it microinjections of nutrients and vitamins all around the base which is like a 2 month booster shot.  Next I can use a wand to  inject a liquid organic compost into the root system which will steadily improve the root uptake over 2 – 8 months. I can also put radial trenches into the soil all around the tree shaped like spokes in a wheel and fill the trenches with rich organic humates, sea kelp, worm castings, root enhancers and the like and this is a longer term boost for 8 months to 1 1/2 years.  It takes a while for this to get up into the tree’s system.  Then I can do it again.

But all that isn’t cheap.  It’s really a question of how much money do you want to spend to keep grandpa tree breathing on a ventilator in the hospital?  Sometimes it’s just best to let him go . . .”

“Oooh,” Alba sighed with her eyes getting moist. “I don’t know if I’m ready to let him go.”  She paused. “Well let us think about it. . . ”

“Sure,” I said, “Whatever you all decide is fine with me.  We can treat him or take him down.”  I wrote it all up on an estimate form for them and told them I’d check with them in a few weeks to see what they had decided.

We will see.  What do you think they’ll decide?

THREE WEEK LATER REPORT  – Well despite the young woman’s claimed heartfelt feelings for wanting to preserve the tree, she’s done nothing since I originally talked to them, not even watered it more.   I can understand not having the money to treat it or remove it right away, but don’t you think if she really loved the tree she would at least remove the weeds around the base, put some inexpensive mulch around it and water it extra?    Next time I see her I should ask her why she hasn’t.

Answers to the Tree ID Quizzes

12 July 2014    Idea of the Day  “A liberal is someone who feels a great debt to his fellow man, which debt he proposes to pay off with your money.”  G. Gordon Liddy

Did anybody identify more than two or three of the items I’ve had on quizzes for identification?

My June 21 blog entitled “Mystery Quiz – Name That Tree!” had no winners although there were a few guesses.  You almost need to be from the southeast US to recognize it.  Those oval smooth-edged leaves are from the black gum, also called the black tupelo.  This tree, Nyssa sylvatica, is usually found around or in swampy land, has a big broad vase-like trunk base and beautiful red leaves in autumn.  Although a non-commercial grade of honey can be acquired from it, it is not valued or often used.  This is NOT the rare, super-high quality Tupelo Honey from the southeastern Georgia, northern Florida swamps that comes from its cousin the white tupelo, Nyssa ogeche, which Van Morrison sang of so classically “She’s as sweet as Tupelo Honey . . . ” http://youtu.be/Eq3YLhtuzTQ.  But the black tupelo is a nice variety in central and northern Florida swamps all the way up to Virginia and as west as Louisiana.

In the July 4th blog with Florida summer flowering trees, nobody wrote in any winning ID on these either but I’m sure many of you got at least a few of them. 

#1 of course is the crape myrtle, Natchez variety – probably the largest and most commonly seen variety in central Florida, sometimes seen as tall as 30 ft !

#2 as you could see when hovering over is the beautiful mid-summer Yellow Poinciana.   Mature trees get as large as oaks and their yellow blooms can be seen for miles in July and August !

#3 is its cousin the Dwarf Poinciana which only gets 12 to 15 ft. high but is still beautiful with its red and golden flowers.

#4 is a mid-summer late remnant of the purple Jacaranda flowers which are most strong during April to May.

#5 is the gorgeous Royal Poinciana another from the poinciana family and this one is drop-dead beautiful.  It is most commonly seen in South Florida but there are examples around Central Florida that dot the landscape with brilliant red from June to July.  Its five petal flower has a fifth petal which isn’t red like the others, but is a beautiful paisley print on a white background.  Whoever created this flower design was a very creative artist!

#6 is the Goldenrain tree  Koelreuteria paniculata that is light, bright yellow in September and then changes colors like a chamelion to the salmon red you see as the backdrop to my blog heading. It’s also known for the jadera bugs it attracts – harmless but strange looking black and red bugs that like its seeds. You can see it here http://bugs.ufl.edu/portfolio/jadera-bug/

#7 is the standard-sized Schefflera. I’ve seen the red fruit stalks already in bloom in early July this year!

#8 is the beautiful White Geiger tree.  It also has a beautiful red-orange variety, but this one is striking in its own right and sometimes will flower for months at a time.

#9 is a Washingtonian fan palm,  also called a Mexican fan palm, its fall flower stalks in full bright orange-red bloom.

#10a is a summer occurrence and #10b is what it looks like for two weeks in February, early March.  This is the semi-tropical Pink Tabebuia, Tabebuia impetiginosa,also called the Pink Trumpet tree or in the Caribbean simply the Ipe tree.  In full bloom, especially when hit by sunlight, it just knocks you out driving down the street!   It has a cousin the Yellow Tabebulia or Yellow Trumpet which has a similarly shaped flower but coarser leaves which is usually smaller but equally striking in early spring. 

#11 is the stunning Silk Floss tree, Ceiba speciosa, a cousin of the kapok tree.  In summer it grows big bunches of floss which used to be used in life preservers and cushions.  Around October in Florida, all its leaves fall off but the pink to lavender flowers all come out in a glorious array.  It’s native to the rainforests of South America. 

I left out a few Central Florida flowering trees I would have liked to have included – like the Purple Glory tree (late summer) and the Silk Cotton tree (bright red in spring) which are two more trees that are just stunning when in bloom.
Hope you enjoyed this little overview!

What’s your Florida tree IQ from their summer flowers?

4 July 2014   Idea of the Day  “97% of people who quit chasing their dreams are hired by the 3% that didn’t.” Unknown

I love Florida trees that have showy summer flowers so much I thought I’d show eleven here and let you see how many you can get right. Answers next week. I’ll name a winner if I get several players. (Nobody has yet correctly identified the tree leaves I left about ten days ago! Any takers?)

#1 Let’s start with an easy one! If you know the cultivar variety, it’s a bonus point. It blooms from May through October, probably
the longest lasting Florida tree flower.

#2 This one blooms big time all over the county starting early July and going through August. It’s a knockout when you spot it driving down the road.

#3 This is an attractive small tree that blooms in July and August. Sometimes it can be all golden flowers, sometimes a mix of red orange and golden, as shown here.

#4 This one has its entire canopy ablaze in all lavender color without many leaves in April and May, but here is an amazing one  in mid-August still blooming, more than any other I’ve ever seen this late.

August jacaranda in Dunedin


#5 This one starts blooming in June and goes well into August. Some call it the most beautiful tree in the world! Notice one of the five petals isn’t just red, it’s a paisley print! And its seed pods are about a foot long and very exotic looking.

#6 This one is another knockout in September! And then changes colors entirely in October! Clue – it’s the tree of my blog logo shown in the latter October there.

#7 This is a real eye-catcher from about early mid-July through September, long red flower stalks.

#8 This one is more common in South Florida, but shows up here in Central Florida as long as it didn’t freeze too long last winter. And its flowers are gorgeous.  I don’t know about global warming, but Florida is definitely warming.  Ten years ago winters were too cold in the Clearwater area for this one to show up.  Now it’s popping up as the last five winters along the coast haven’t gotten below 34 degrees!

#9 Ever seen a palm in gaudy flower bloom in October! Beautiful isn’t it?  What kind is it?
Medjool or sylvester!

#10 What’s this spring flowering tree doing blooming in late October?!

And here is a mature one 30 ft. high (not many around) in full glory in late February!

#11 And perhaps my favorite! I’ve even blown it up and printed it on canvas for sale. It blooms in October for a few weeks and manifests a characteristic palmate 5 leaf structure.