The Coastal Star

Trees, leafless and forlorn, a sad sight for all

By Tim Norris

Among the dozens of the dead and dying and the iffy west of the bridge along George Bush Boulevard in Delray Beach, one Calophyllum inophyllum is emphatically alive.

Even the experts can’t say why. Within a single variety, trees show quirks and personality, tree service owner and Mounts Botanical Garden Board President Michael Zimmerman of Lake Worth says, and the conditions they live and breathe oxygen into can shift by the moment.

What the experts CAN say is that Florida’s cold slam this last January and its effects on tropical trees were the worst in their memory, and some, like Zimmerman and Tim Simmons and Raul Rivera of the Delray Beach parks staff, have been tending to trees for nearly 30 years. “I’ve never seen anything
like that before, and I worked in nurseries before I came here,” Rivera says.

The prolonged freeze, 11 days from January 3 to 14 when temperatures fell below 32 degrees F., was the longest since forecasters started keeping records 80 years ago.

While most trees and bushes shook off the chill, Clusea, Ficus and some species of palm, coconuts, spindles, Copernicea and bottled palms, took killing blows to their oldest, lowest leaf fronds. Those can be trimmed away, as long as the topmost source of new leaves, the bright green apical
meristem, keeps on leafing on.

Calophyllum, a round-crowned, pale-barked tree native to equatorial Africa and Latin America and known as “beauty leaf,” hit the wall of frost. South of a line between temperate and sub-tropical climates, falling locally around PGA Boulevard, the heat-loving trees couldn’t cope. Now, in cadres
along George Bush Boulevard and in clutches up on A1A and in once-welcoming rows in Anchor Park just to the south and in a number of gated communities, many Calophyllum stand bare-limbed and forlorn.

For beauty leaf, Jack Frost is a beast. Air anywhere near freezing, driven by wind, amplified by rain, can knife through leaves, pierce the bark and growth-layer and scythe into the phloem, the layer of soda-straw-like cells that draw water up from roots to crown.

The killing of those cells is unseen. The death rattle is literal. Calophyllum’s rounded, waxy-faced leaves so good at repelling salt from ocean air have little defense against prolonged frost. They freeze and dry to a dusty brown, rattling in the sea breeze, then spiraling down.

Residents watched them tumble. “I came here on a day when all the leaves were falling,” says John Krolikowski, parish manager of St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church on George Bush west of the Intracoastal. “It was like up north.”

The sight was as rare as snow. “Typically in the winter with cold weather, they say for every mile you move west (from the coast) you lose a degree in temperature,” Zimmerman says. “So even in 1989, when we had a really bad freeze, it only lasted one night. The coastline was saved, because of the
warm ocean, the ocean breezes.

“This year, we had freezing temperatures all the way to the coast. We had wind, we had rain, and we had really cold air.”

Tropical trees, he explains, don’t get a winter off-season. They grapple through the whole calendar with a host of diseases, cankers and molds and microbial invaders such as lethal yellowing, a phytoplasm carried by leaf-hoppers, and with animal invaders from tiny worms and beetles and borers to the latest renewed scourges, the Mediterranean fruit fly and the white fly, which attacks Ficus trees. They also contend with the mercurial excesses of climate, hurricanes, drought, heat, cold.

“Trees are kind of like batteries,” Zimmerman says. “They have stored energy. They try to fight whatever it is, whether it’s cold or insects or disease, and when they run out of energy, it’s all over.”

In conditions such as January’s, some of the Calophyllumt, even partly withered by a north wind and driving rain that browned their northern half, can struggle through. Most of them lose.

“The cold caused serious die-back of branches and even entire trees,” Bill Schall, commercial horticulture extension agent for the Palm Beach County Cooperative Extension said via e-mail. He sees winter- bitten trees from Palm Beach through Delray and Boca and beyond, and he advises waiting to clearly identify dead tissue, pruning it out, and possibly applying general purpose fungicides and bactericides to protect remaining live tissue. “If too much of the tree is
killed,” he says, “the tree should be replaced.”

Looking down the row of Calophyllum along the narrow strip of ground between sidewalk and George Bush Boulevard in front of St. Vincent Ferrer, Mike Zimmerman acknowledges that a few trees show scattered sprigs of new leaf. Then he says, “I’d take all of these down, put in something else, like silver buttonwood.” It hurts him to say it. “I can only take a tree down once,” he says. “I can prune it and nurture it for a lifetime.”

Replacing just one tree here, he adds, could cost at least $250. Not replacing them, though, would cost the street its colonnade of shady green canopies and part of its character. For now, these Calophyllum are left with amputated branches.

The ones who cut back those branches were superintendent Tim Simmons and crews from his 58-person staff at the city of Delray’s Park Maintenance Department. They continue to cut away winter-killed fronds from hundreds of palm trees. While property owners are responsible for trees on their grounds, the parks people monitor all the city’s street and park trees and take action where
needed, attacking dead and damaged trees from a bucket truck with an elevated cherry-picker, with a brush bandit for chipping and mulching wood, with excavators and a mechanical tree spade and a machine to dig out and grind stumps.

In the rigors of tree trimming and removal (just two of their many duties throughout the city, including all landscaping in public facilities and the parks), they have learned to stay both watchful and hopeful. “Trees can and DO grow back,” Simmons says. “Most of the palm trees are holding up. We want to be sure.”

They also live on a budget, one that becomes tighter each year. “I have one tree-trimmer (on staff), Earkis Hill (III), with help from Steve Sack, for 15,000 to 20,000 trees we have to maintain,” he says.

Trimming and cutting down trees, Simmons says, can be an urgent matter of public safety. Hurricanes wreak havoc, and even normal aging takes a toll. Just finding water while being pinched between sidewalk and street, in Zimmerman‘s words, can be like “trying to eat with a tiny spoon.” Trees that succumb need removing.

Still, Zimmerman says, losing trees hurts everyone. They benefit residents and passersby and tourists and businesses, offering shelter and shade and backdrops of curtaining green, forestalling erosion, hosting whole food chains of animals and becoming central to the visual face of a neighborhood.

As the single surviving Calophyllum on George Bush Boulevard proves, every tree is as distinct as every person.

“Trees ask so little and give so much,” Zimmerman says. “We need to take care of them the way they take care of us.”

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