Dying Oak

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.