A biologist with Blackwater State Forest checks longleaf pines for signs of red cockaded woodpecker nests. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Longleaf pine is a granddaddy among the trees of the Southeastern United States, once covering up to 90 million acres throughout the coastal plain. Tall and stately, slow-growing and dense, it was one of the most desirable trees in the forestry and shipbuilding industry for two centuries. Its sap was used to produce turpentine, tar, and pitch, especially to coat and waterproof the bottoms of wooden ships. Its tall, upright form made for a perfect ship’s mast. Between the years 1830 and 1935, approximately 90% of the Southeast’s old growth longleaf trees were harvested, and much of the land was used for farming or development.
Besides its commercial uses, the longleaf ecosystem supports a wide diversity of other plants and animals. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker nests only in the wood of old (100-500 years!) longleaf pines, and the canopy shades a grassy groundcover often dominated by wiregrass. Gopher tortoises, the endangered indigo snake, and quail also thrive in longleaf pine ecosystems.
A longleaf pine in its grass stage. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The longleaf pine is highly adapted to fire while in its “grass” stage and as an older tree, allowing it to tower over smaller hardwoods that are cleared out in natural and prescribed fires. This clearing allows its own seeds to sprout and thrive, and for low-growing grasses to dominate the understory. Pines can be difficult to differentiate in the southern forest, but longleaf pines have deep (up to 8-12 feet) taproots and long needles—up to 18 inches—in fascicles of two or three. The needles grow in spherical bunches that look like cheerleading pom poms.
As ecologists and foresters have realized the important role these trees play in the landscape, significant efforts have been undertaken to restore much of that habitat on both public and private land. Locally, Blackwater State Forest and neighboring Eglin Air Force Base have replanted and managed thousands of acres of longleaf habitat. Foresters and nonprofits also work with private landowners to reestablish these stately pines.
The ancient cycad, coontie, is a hardy and attractive plant for Florida landscapes. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The plant has a crazy-sounding name, more like some little animal you’d find in Australia than a native plant. However, an ancient Florida plant it is, and a tough one at that. Growing close to the ground, it most resembles a large fern or a sago palm, if the sago had smooth, rounded leaf edges. Like the sago, the coontie (Zamia floridana) is a cycad—a group of palmlike plants that have been around so long that triceratops and stegasauruses ate them! Coonties are the only cycads native to North America, found in the states and island nations like Cuba and the Bahamas.
Male cones (strobilus) of coontie are thinner and shorter than female cones. Photo credit: Dan Culbert, UF IFAS
Another interesting feature of the coontie is its seed cones. These are large reddish orange cones that resemble magnolia seedpods. Both sexes of plant produce them in clusters ranging from one to five of the 2-7” long cones. Cones from the male produce pollen, while females produce seeds. If you are interested in attracting wildlife to your yard, the coontie provides good low-growing cover for birds and small mammals. It is also the preferred food for the caterpillar of the rare Atala butterfly. Members of the Timucuan and Calusa tribes ground up the starchy root of the coontie as a flour. However, the root contains a toxin and if it is not removed first, ingestion could result in severe abdominal pain and vomiting. From the late 1880’s through World War I, a large starch industry existed in Florida, producing flour from the coontie root.
Adult female atala butterfly, showing royal blue streak on forewings. Photo credit: Sandy Koi, University of Florida
At home in drier soil conditions like oak hammocks and pinelands in north central Florida, these plants can also adapt to a variety of soil pH types. Coonties are drought, cold, and salt tolerant, thus a great landscape choice for coastal landscapes near the Gulf or a bay. The plants are very long-lived and adaptable. In fact, the book Florida’s Best Native Landscape Plants notes it is “Very hardy and easy to care for. Will grow well in any part of Florida, even outside its normal range. An exceptional replacement for the closely related, often used, but non-native sago palm.” In other words, this is an ideal landscape plant that should be used more throughout Florida.
Saw palmettos provide crucial ecosystem services for the forests of Florida. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is a classic symbol of Florida. Found in upland habitats and just to the edge of wetlands, their brilliant green fronds stand out in the mostly brown pine flatwoods and oak hammocks to which they are endemic. The shrublike saw palmetto thrives in sandy soils, is highly salt tolerant, and is tough as nails. The plant’s root is one of the sturdiest in nature. Imagine the trunk of a palm tree laid horizontally and just underground—this is the plant’s base. This root system lends stability and tolerance to nearly every tough Florida growing condition, including drought, floods, and fire. Saw palmettos are extremely slow growing, and there are stands in south Florida in which botanists have found individual plants and clonal colonies several thousand years old. Saw palmettos are one of the few members of the palm family that thrive in the panhandle. While many palm trees are planted here, most are native to more southern climates with warmer winters and karst geology—a higher pH soil composed of limestone and often prone to springs and sinkholes.
The tough, serrated edges of the saw palmetto gave it its name. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The saw palmetto’s name comes from the serrated, saw-like edges of the stem. These are quite tough and can cut your skin and clothing if not careful. A very similar palmetto, the bluestem, grows in wetter soils. It can be differentiated from the saw palmetto because its stems are smooth—no serrated edges—and the whole plant has a bluish cast to it.
The saw palmetto has long been prized by humans for its practical uses. The “ethnobotanical” history of this plant has ties to Native American tribes who used the fronds for roofing and building material, brooms, fishing nets, and fans. The leaves were utilized for rope, and multiple plant parts for food and medicine. The dark blue/black fruit of the saw palmetto was considered an aphrodisiac and has been used to treat prostate problems for centuries. According to a UF publication on the saw palmetto, “Modern day development of a purified extract from the berries greatly improves symptoms of enlarged prostate. Florida is the biggest source and producer of saw palmetto products. With about 2,000 tons harvested from South Florida and exported to Europe each year, the fruit crop estimate is $50 million a year in the state.”
Saw palmetto berries are a staple of Florida wildlife diets. Photo credit: UF School of Forest Resources & Conservation
Besides the human uses, saw palmetto serves as a crucial component in the diet of native wildlife. Florida black bears, panthers, 20 other species of mammals, over 100 types of birds, 25 amphibians, over 60 reptiles, and countless insects depend on saw palmetto berries as part of their diet. The wild harvest of saw palmettos is regulated by the state to prevent overharvesting and negative impacts to the wildlife food supply.
Saw palmettos also make a great home landscape plant, as they can grow in a wide variety of conditions, provide wildlife food and habitat, and add visual interest. There are few plants more “low-maintenance” than an established saw palmetto. A mature one is so difficult to remove, that it’s best to leave it where it is anyway!
The blackgum/tupelo tree begins changing leaf color in early fall. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Florida isn’t necessarily known for its vibrant fall foliage, but if you know where to look this time of year, you can find some amazing scenery. In late fall, the river swamps can yield beautiful fall leaf color. The shades are unique to species, too, so if you like learning to identify trees this is one of the best times of the year for it. Many of our riparian (river floodplain) areas are dominated by a handful of tree species that thrive in the moist soil of wetlands. Along freshwater creeks and rivers, these tend to be bald cypress, blackgum/tupelo, and red maple. Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is also common, but its leaves stay green, with a silver-gray underside visible in the wind.
The classic “swamp tree” shape of a cypress tree is due to its buttressed trunk, an adaptation to living in wet soils. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one of the rare conifers that loses its leaves. In the fall, cypress tress will turn a bright rust color, dropping all their needles and leaving a skeletal, upright trunk. Blackgum/tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) trees have nondescript, almost oval shaped leaves that will turn yellow, orange, red, and even deep purple, then slowly drop to the swamp floor. Blackgums and cypress trees share a characteristic adaptation to living in and near the water—wide, buttressed trunks. This classic “swamp” shape is a way for the trees to stabilize in the mucky, wet soil and moving water. Cypresses have the additional root support of “knees,” structures that grow from the roots and above the water to pull in oxygen and provide even more support.
A red maple leaf displaying its incredible fall colors. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
The queen of native Florida fall foliage, however, is the red maple (Acer rubrum) . Recognizable by its palm-shaped leaves and bright red stem in the growing season, its fall color is remarkable. A blazing bright red, sometimes fading to pink, orange, or streaked yellow, these trees can jump out of the landscape from miles away. A common tree throughout the Appalachian mount range, it thrives in the wetter soils of Florida swamps.
To see these colors, there are numerous beautiful hiking, paddling, and camping locations nearby, particularly throughout Blackwater State Forest and the recreation areas of Eglin Air Force Base. But even if you’re not a hiker, the next time you drive across a bridge spanning a local creek or river, look downstream. I guarantee you’ll be able to see these three tree species in all their fall glory.
Even healthy live oaks need maintenance and occasional trimming to stay safe. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
After storms, Extension agents are routinely asked about whose responsibility it is to maintain a tree along a property line. This becomes particularly important in a situation where a property owner’s tree or branch falls and causes damage to their neighbor’s home or possessions.
To clarify this often contentious issue, reference to legal experts is necessary. In a series of publications called “The Handbook of Florida Fence and Property Law,” two attorneys and a University of Florida law student explain several statutes that give us direction. The section on “Trees and Landowner Responsibility” goes into further detail and cites case-law, but for ease of reading it is summarized below.
Situation 1: Removing a healthy tree on a shared property line.
If two neighbors share a tree on their property line and one of them wants to remove it, the adjoining landowner must give their permission. Removing trees can impact property value, heating/cooling bills, or aesthetic value. Without a neighbor’s consent, the landowner cutting down a tree can be legally liable for damages.
Hurricanes can have serious impacts on trees in their path. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Situation 2: Responsibility for overhanging branches and roots.
A big storm hits your neighborhood, with tons of rain, wind, and lightning. You wake up in the morning and see that a large branch fell from your neighbor’s tree and crushed your kids’ basketball goal. If branches from the neighbor’s tree were otherwise healthy, they are not responsible for any damages resulting from the tree. If it was dead, however, and their negligence contributed to the branch falling, they will be responsible for damages.
Keep in mind that if the neighbor’s tree/branches/roots are in good health but interfering with something in your yard, you may trim them at your own expense. The same goes for your tree hanging in their yard, so while it’s not required, it’s always good to have a conversation first to let them know your plans.
After Hurricane Ivan, this tree’s root system completely uprooted and destroyed and adjacent fence. Photo credit: Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension
Situation 3: Hurricane Sally blew your neighbor’s tree over and into your yard.
Just like the situation with branches and roots, the same principle goes for an entire tree falling on adjoining property—if the tree was alive, it’s the responsibility of the person whose yard it fell in. If it was dead when it fell, it’s the responsibility of the tree’s owner to pay for damages.
In a complicated situation involving property damage, the saying, “good fences make good neighbors” only goes so far. Be sure to note the health of your trees throughout the year and trim back dead or dying branches. If you see serious decay or have concerns about a tree’s health, contact your county Extension office or a certified arborist. Finally, if the circumstances aren’t easily determined, be sure to contact a licensed attorney and/or your insurance company for direction.