Photo essay: In praise of trees

Florida has vast array of species, which play critical role in lives of humans and wildlife

Trees play a central role in our lives, quietly fitting into our world. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Trees are pencil and paper, table and chair. They are doors, cabinets and furniture for our homes. They are framing for house and roof.

Often escaping our notice, trees play a central role in our lives, quietly fitting into our world.

They have always fed us. As the glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age, we followed the oaks north and thrived on the acorns. Indigenous peoples in Florida ate elderberries, mulberries, plums and nuts from hickory and other trees. Think of a tree as a supermarket.

Elderberries fed indigenous peoples–and they feed us. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Trees are healing. On his 1,000-mile walk to the Gulf, John Muir recovered from malaria by lying under the live oaks at Cedar Key. A physician once advised me to place my palms on a mature tree to draw healing energy into my body. The modern practice of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku), which originated in Japan, simply requires walking among trees, breathing deeply and taking in nature with all our senses. It has been found to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and bolster the immune system.

John Muir lay under healing oaks like these to cure himself of malaria. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Florida has hundreds of species of trees because the peninsula offers a variety of growing conditions — from occasional frosts in the north to balmy temps year-round at the southern tip. Temperate trees prosper in North Florida, while in the extreme south and the Keys, tropical trees thrive.

A tree tour starting in Jacksonville would turn up tulip poplar, dogwood, redbud, sweet gum, various species of oak, beech and other more sub-temperate zone trees, plus other trees that grow throughout the peninsula.

This dogwood is blooming at the Sustainable Living Center in North Florida. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

On the Panhandle, you might even find the rare species — Torreya — in the Apalachicola forest.

Sprinkled throughout the state are slash, longleaf and other pines; oaks, including live oaks festooned with Spanish moss and diminutive scrub oaks in Florida scrub; bald cypress; cabbage palms; Southern magnolia; and red maple.

Redbud grows halfway down the peninsula. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

At the southernmost end are tropical species such as royal palms, gumbo-limbo, Jamaican dogwood, geiger trees and strangler figs, which can still be found in old parts of Miami. Lignumvitae, the tree of life, is widely planted but grows naturally in only a few places in the Keys, including Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, a wondrous place not to be missed.

This bald cypress is in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Oaks have been especially revered; towns and cities in Florida often sprang up around a live oak. Early settlers made a pilgrimage to see “grand” trees such as the Sherman oak. For indigenous peoples, that tree was sacred.

If I had to pick one word to describe a tree it would be “community.” Trees exemplify the interconnectedness of living things. Not only do vines, air plants, ferns and mosses live on trees, but lichen dot the trunks, fungi grow at the bases and underground, and bacteria and viruses surround the roots.

Ferns and mosses are part of this cabbage palm’s community. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Innumerable species of animals live in, nest in, eat from, and roost in trees. The zebra longwing, Florida’s state butterfly, loves live oaks. While I was eating breakfast on my lanai this morning, a red-bellied woodpecker extricated insects from the bark of a nearby slash pine. Just now, a pileated woodpecker let me know that he is here too.

Trees have their own tree companions. Live oaks are often accompanied by cabbage palms or, in the extreme south, royal palms. In North Florida, spruce, Southern magnolia, beech, tulip trees and mulberries are company for oaks. Here in Southwest Florida, I often see pines and cabbage palms growing side by side, sometimes intertwined.

A zebra longwing often is found on wild coffee around oaks. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

The services trees provide are invaluable. They cool us in summer, shelter us in winter. In these days of air pollution and heat islands, shade is more and more at a premium. Without trees, temperatures rise. I have found that when it is 85 degrees on a canopied street in Venice, it is 90 degrees in a nearby gated community. The difference? Cooling oaks on the canopy street versus lawn and a few specimen plantings in the development. It has gotten warmer, making it more challenging to work and exercise outdoors.

The red-bellied woodpecker prospects for breakfast on a pine. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

“Trees outstrip most people in the extent and depth of their work for the public good,” wrote Sara Ebenreck in Shading Our Cities. Treepeople (www.treepeople.org) has compiled 22 benefits.  First on its list is that trees combat climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the air. In one year, an acre of mature trees can provide enough oxygen for 18 people.

Mangroves, vital in this era of sea level rise, hold soil in place. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In these days of storm and flood, trees reduce runoff and hold soil in place. Mangroves along the coast are vital protectors of the dunes. With summer rains, rivers and creeks overflow, resulting in sheet flow across the peninsula. Still, many trees withstand seasonal submersion. Cypress is especially resilient.

Snags are excellent roosting and nesting places for eagles and other birds. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In death, trees continue to provide many services. Snags are endlessly useful as perches, roosts and nesting areas for wildlife. We tend to be cleaner-uppers. Parks wisely preserve snags as shelter for a multitude of creatures, including the bald eagles, which built a huge nest in a dead pine near me. Wind, sun and rain carve these trees into fantastic shapes as if a sculptor with hammer and chisel had created beautiful works of art.

Their numbers are dwindling. In the 20 years I have been photographing Sarasota County, land clearing has decimated the once healthy population of trees. Planners with little foresight are allowing development to proceed at breakneck speed, resulting in wholesale destruction of trees.

A developed lot in Venice is shorn of all vegetation except one lone oak. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

With the loss of trees, wildlife suffers. Biologist Edward O. Wilson warned, “When we cut down trees, there are invisible reverberations under our feet. You are not just removing trees, and a few birds fluttering around the canopy; you are drastically imperiling a vast array of species within a few square miles of you.”

Trees have always been welcoming to children. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Trees need our protection. As individuals we can still do that. Avoid taking down mature trees. Care for them; nurture them.

Keep trees in your life. Avoid razing land prior to development. Retain enough trees and shrubs to take advantage of their many benefits. A home surrounded by mature trees costs 50% less to air condition. They are the bones of a garden. They provide much needed shade. In Florida, sun can be too hot for plants to survive. If you are restricted to lawn, plant more than one tree. Plant a group of at least three. For a wonderful boost and lots of great information, read Doug Tallamy’s latest book, Nature’s Best Hope.

‘In the woods, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at whatever period of life is always a child.’ Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

For native trees suitable for Florida gardens, consult the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (UF/IFAS) at https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu. The Florida Native Plant Society website lists nurseries where you can buy native trees. We have two in our area: Sweet Bay Nursery in Parrish and Florida Native Plants Nursery in Sarasota.

Being among trees is a kind of homecoming, a return to our roots. “In the woods, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at whatever period of life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Fran Palmeri is the author of Florida Lost and Found, available on Amazon. Her PowerPoint, Green Pilgrimage through Natural Florida, can be accessed on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/558663529) and on the Sarasota County library website. 

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