Kayaking over seagrass beds and stingrays, hiking among pitcher plants, boating past diving ospreys, and meeting hundreds of fascinating, like-minded people—these are just some of the great experiences I’ve had while teaching the Florida Master Naturalist Program. More than 20 years since its inception, the Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) has inspired the creation of dozens of similar courses in other states and proven itself to be one of the most popular outreach programs to come out of UF IFAS Extension.
The mission of the FMNP is simple—to promote awareness, understanding, and respect of Florida’s natural world among Florida’s citizens and visitors. I have always felt strongly that if you want people to care about something, they need to understand it. And to really understand something, you need to experience it. I know my own passion for science and ecology was ignited early on by teachers who took us outside and helped us encounter the many wondrous surprises in the natural world. With the FMNP, we seek to do just that.
Over a span of 40 hours in 6-7 weeks, we spend about half our time with classroom presentations and the other half in the field, seeing the plants, animals, and ecosystems we discuss in class. In addition to classes and field trips, students produce a final project and present it to the class. These can range from labeled collections and slide presentations to building bird houses and new trails. The program is composed of three 40-hour core courses; Coastal, Upland, and Freshwater Systems. Seven “short courses” with 24 hours of class/field time include the Land Steward series (Conservation Science, Habitat Evaluation, Wildlife Monitoring, and Environmental Interpretation) and the Restoration courses (Coastal Restoration, Marine Habitat Restoration, and Invasive Plants). Locally, we try to rotate the core modules every couple of years and incorporate the short courses periodically. Registration includes a detailed course manual and, upon completion, FMNP patch, certificate, and pin denoting area of expertise. There are a handful of scholarships available for those interested in applying to offset costs.
The classes do not count towards university credit but are an excellent certification and professional development opportunity that many will list on a resume. While we’ve had ecotour operators, park rangers, environmental consultants, teachers, and archaeologists participate, most of our FMNP students are not professionals in the field. They come from every background imaginable but share an interest in the outdoors. Because we meet weekly, class members often form long-lasting friendships during the courses.
Information on upcoming classes in northwest Florida and all around the state is available online. Classes range from fully in-person to hybrid and online options. FMNP classes are restricted to adults 18 and over, but a new “Florida Youth Naturalist” curriculum has been designed through our 4-H program for young people. For more information on that, check out their website.
It is Florida Arbor Day and all across the state people will be picking up trees and planting them for the future. It is also the time of year where large reforestation efforts are underway to get the next generation established. Planting trees is one of the most hopeful activities you can do. It takes a long time for a tiny forest seedling to become a titan of the forest. Similarly, a larger nursery grown tree planted in an urban setting takes a long time to get to the large shade tree that is envisioned. Whether in an urban or forest setting getting tree planting right is the difference between success and failure. Today we celebrate Florida Arbor Day, in large part because this is the best time of year to plant trees in our climate. Planting trees in the cold of winter means they can focus on growing and establishing a root system before the leaf and shoot growth they put on in spring. This is why states move their Arbor Day observance and the most southern and warm states like Florida, Louisiana, and Texas have the earliest celebrations.
So, what goes into planting a tree properly? Well, it is a lot more than green side up that is for sure. It takes lots of planning, care, and attention to detail. The specifics are very different when planting thousands of forest seedlings across a tract vs just a few large trees in a park. The basic principles are the same though and we will start with forest trees. For reforestation in forests the journey starts in specialized forest nurseries that produce the millions of trees needed to serve the forest industry of the area. Let’s take a deeper dive into getting tree planting right in this important time of year.
Tree Planting Tips in Forested Settings
Getting tree planting right in forest settings really starts with the tree species and seedlings used. If this is selected wrong, the seedling quality is low, and the seedlings are not handled correctly in shipment and the field; complete planting failures can occur. A failure is very costly as you not only have the cost for this year but the replanting cost the next, plus you lost a year of forest growth. Thankfully, it is very rare now since we know good planting protocols and follow them regularly. Forest seedling nurseries are extremely high tech operations and now provide the best seedlings in the world here in the U.S. The U.S. reforestation system is the envy of the world and the Southeast is the jewel in that crown routinely planting the highest amount of trees of any timber region globally. Entire research divisions at major universities plus state forest agency reforestation sections and the U.S. Forest Service Reforestation Division all work in concert to ensure our forests’ future. That is not to mention the massive private nurseries run by top flight companies that are experts in reforestation and forest management. Landowners and others planting trees now have the best access and reforestation material ever available in private hands, and companies provide the highest quality seedlings available in terms of seedling quality and improved tree genetics. By spending a bit more in reforestation a huge return can be generated when a stand is mature. Landowners can take advantage of this outstanding leap in reforestation technology, but old-fashioned due diligence and good planting technique is key to realize the outcome. First and foremost, the right tree species has to be matched with the right site and range of conditions where it will thrive. Off-site plantings that are not compatible with that species (such as loblolly pine on sandhills) may succeed from a survival standpoint only to fail long term (i.e. stunting and lack of volume development). Care of the seedlings during the planting operation is key to success and establishment though. Seedlings must be stored and cared for properly until planting is completed. Poor techniques will cause issues with root structure and growth and poor care and excessive storage times before planting will cause stress that can result in seedling death or loss of vigor that leads to loss of growth. Plant seedlings right though and you will have an excellent stand. Here are some tips to get tree planting right:
Work closely with a good consulting forester, forest nursery, and or reforestation service provider. Coordinate seedling delivery, storage, and planting well in advance of the operation.
Assess the weather conditions leading up to planting and do not be afraid to cancel if conditions are questionable.
Store seedlings in refrigerated trucks or a refrigerated storage facility (optimal) or tarped in an area that is out of the wind and elements.
Bareroot seedlings are the most sensitive and need to be planted as soon as possible and by skilled crews. Bareroot are prone to J-rooting and other issues if not planted with the correct equipment for the soil conditions and by highly trained and skilled crews. If machine planting ensure test runs are done to make sure the planting trench and packing system are working well and planting seedlings correctly.
Ensure the seedling type and planting conditions are communicated to the crew well ahead of arrival for logistical purposes. A Consulting Forester is invaluable here and results are usually better when a landowner uses a consultant that can coordinate. Issues like planting crews showing up with 4 inch container dibbles (the industry standard) when the landowner has ordered 6 inch containerized seedlings can be a disaster.
Conduct quality control and spacing checks throughout the planting operation to make sure seedlings are in good condition and being planted according to best practices and the planned reforestation operation. Communicate with the crew on changes needed. Crews want to do a good job and usually enjoy working together with the forester or landowner to get the best job done.
We have passed the forest tree category and we move to the urban forest and what is really the art of individual tree management. Urban forests are very different from natural forests, but they are still forests and the management principles of forestry still apply. The primary difference is planting operations in natural settings involve thousands of trees and usually count on a certain amount of loss. Urban reforestation and tree planting can rely on just a few to several hundred trees depending on the scope. The main difference is urban operations use single large container trees that have been grown for several years in the nursery and will be planted in very specific locations. There is a significant focus on each tree and the investment per tree is huge by comparison. Given this it is highly desirable that each tree live and the expense and investment in each individual tree necessitates this. Urban forests also have ready access to things like irrigation, tailored fertilizer, and many other tree care options to improve establishment. Most Arbor Day activities focus on these urban planting operations and things like tree dedications. To get it right let’s look at what we need to do to get urban trees planted right in our urban forests.
Tree Planting Tips for Urban Areas
Urban trees have a rough life compared to their relatives in the natural forest. Natural forests do not have the myriad of issues that the urban forest does, but that does not mean trees can’t thrive in our urban ecosystem. Here in the Florida Panhandle, we have some of the largest and most densely covered urban forests in our city centers and metropolitan areas. In fact, our urban forest tree cover is some of the highest in the country. This is likely due in large part to our lush semi-tropical forest ecosystem that naturally thrive here. With good management our Urban Forest just sort of forms and towers over our urban landscape. Another factor supporting this is the local community commitment to tree planting and tree care. The vast majority of our incorporated communities are Tree City USA certified and many private HOA communities have HOA rules that require tree cover maintenance. These are good things for our tree cover and our communities are much more livable, enjoyable, and healthy due to our amazing urban forest. To maintain our urban forest though we need to plan tree planting and management, if for now other reason than to replace trees that die or are lost over time. As our area grows and develops new trees need to be planted in urban areas to replace ones lost as the natural forest was converted. Doing this right means more success, healthier trees, and better use of public funds through better survival. Here is what you need to know to plant a tree right in your urban setting.
Right Tree Right Place! Planning is key and far too many times it is overlooked. Urban forests have limited root and crown growing room. Planting a towering Southern Red Oak in an area with only space for 40% of this tree at maturity will not be a success. Yes, that tree is small and dainty now, but in our climate it will grow into a towering tree in no time. Similarly, trees that drop fruit (like Sweetgum) or create a bit of a mess (like Sycamore) may not fit well in an area. Perform a through assessment of the planting spot and determine what size and characteristics are needed. Then compare it with our outstanding variety of native trees and select the right one.
Thoroughly assess the planting site and determine any mitigations that are needed. Locate and determine all utilities, rights of way, and other issues. Remember that utilities have the right to trim any tree that comes into their right of way and that includes roots and branches. If the tree will interfere consider relocation or selecting a smaller tree. Sometimes a tree will tolerate the maintenance activities associated with a utility or right of way but sometimes it will not.
Determine the soil characteristics on site and perform a soil test. This is probably the most overlooked issue, and many people plant trees without any thought to the soil. Since trees are big and tough their site needs often get ignored. It is easy to forget trees have preferences in water depth, PH, density, and nutrient needs. Compaction is particularly a problem in urban settings and a soil test can detect it. If compaction is a problem, develop a plan to mitigate it prior to planting.
Determine if amendments are needed and/or beneficial and apply accordingly. For urban trees preparing a planting hole and root establishment zone is critical to success. Fortunately we have some of the best options and methods of doing this now that we ever have before. Biochar, soil mycorrhizae (beneficial fungi) inoculants, long term release tailored fertilizers, and multiple other options mean a planting hole can be so much more than a hole. Explore the options and select what time and budgets allow, the tree will certainly do much better with good amendments to establish a strong root system early.
Plant the tree properly and using good techniques. You can take a whole class on this and still have some more to gain on technique. It is a much more complex operation than it initially appears. It is more than just getting the tree in the ground straight and level. It starts from the minute the tree arrives from the grower to the maintenance over the establishment years. Common mistakes are too small/too large a hole, incorrect depth, improper backfill and setting, failure to mulch or improper mulching technique.
Arbor Day is a good reminder that trees are a valuable and important part of the world we inhabit. That is true in a pristine forest or under the favorite shade tree at your local golf course. Except for some of the shortest-lived trees most will certainly outlive us. The longest will outlive tens of generations of we humans. Let’s hope that the trees we plant this Arbor Day are successful in establishment and benefit many generations to come.
According to Druid lore, hanging the plant in homes would bring good luck and protection. Holly was considered sacred because it remained green and strong with brightly colored red berries no matter how harsh the winter. Most other plants would wilt and die.
Later, Christians adopted the holly tradition from Druid practices and developed symbolism to reflect Christian beliefs. Today, the red berries are said to represent the blood that Jesus shed on the cross when he was crucified. Additionally, the pointed leaves of the holly symbolize the crown of thorns Jesus wore on his head.
Several hollies are native to Florida. Many more are cultivated varieties commonly used as landscape plants. Hollies (Ilex spp.) are generally low maintenance plants that come in a diversity of sizes, forms and textures, ranging from large trees to dwarf shrubs.
The berries provide a valuable winter food source for migratory birds. However, the berries only form on female plants. Hollies are dioecious plants, meaning male and female flowers are located on separate plants. Both male and female hollies produce small white blooms in the spring. Bees are the primary pollinators, carrying pollen from the male hollies 1.5 to 2 miles, so it is not necessary to have a male plant in the same landscape.
Several male hollies are grown for their compact formal shape and interesting new foliage color. Dwarf Yaupon Hollies (Ilex vomitoria ‘Shillings’ and ‘Bordeaux’) form symmetrical spheres without extensive pruning. ‘Bordeaux’ Yaupon has maroon-colored new growth. Neither cultivar has berries.
Hollies prefer to grow in partial shade but will do well in full sun if provided adequate irrigation. Most species prefer well-drained, slightly acidic soils. However, Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) and Gallberry (Ilex glabra) naturally occurs in wetland areas and can be planted on wetter sites.
Evergreen trees retain leaves throughout the year and provide wind protection. The choice of one type of holly or another will largely depend on prevailing environmental conditions and windbreak purposes. If, for example, winds associated with storms or natural climatic variability occur in winter, then a larger leaved plant might be required. Several cultivars have been created by cross pollination with native species or propagation from sports of natives. Check out ‘East Palatka’, ‘Savannah’, ‘Nellie Stevens’, ‘Robin’, and ‘Screen Play’.
The natives are likely to be better adapted to local climate, soil, pest and disease conditions and over a broader range of conditions. Nevertheless, cultivars may be desirable for many attributes such as height, growth rate and texture but should not reproduce and spread beyond the area planted. When introducing a new plant to the landscape it is always important to consider any negative impacts.
There is increasing awareness of invasiveness, i.e., the potential for an introduced species to establish itself or become “established” in an ecological community and even become a dominant plant that replaces native species. Tree and shrub species can become invasive if they aggressively proliferate beyond the windbreak. At first glance, Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius), a fast-growing, non-native shrub that has a dense crown, might be considered an appropriate red berry producing species. However, it readily spreads by seed disbursed by birds and has invaded many natural ecosystems. Therefore, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has declared it illegal to plant this tree in Florida without a special permit. Consult the Florida Invasive Species Council (FISP) https://www.floridainvasives.org/ for a list of prohibited species in Florida.
For a more comprehensive (though not total) list of holly varieties and their individual growth habits refer to ENH42 Hollies at a Glance: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg021
Diospyros virginiana, the Common Persimmon, is a large deciduous tree in the Ebenaceae family. The common persimmon is a southern native small to medium fruit tree that is becoming more popular for homegrown fruit. The bark is grey or black and forms chunks or blocks that give it a checkerboard look. Fall color can be a spectacular red in USDA hardiness zones 4 through 8a. It is well adapted to cities but requires fallen fruit maintenance and wildlife control. Its mature height can be 40 to 60 feet, with branches spreading from 20 to 35 feet and a trunk two feet thick, but it is commonly much shorter in landscapes. The trunk can have a singular or multiple trunks, it tends to form colonies. The leaves are alternate, simple, and a rich green color. The leaf margins can be entire or somewhat serrated. The funnel-shaped flower has four petals and ranges in color from white to cream to gray.
UF/IFAS, Full Tree
Tree Bark Photo: UF
The common persimmon is smaller than a ping-pong ball. The persimmon is a round fruit with an orange to reddish-purple color, with a size of 1 ¼ inches across. The flavor is more fermented and sugary-sweet. In Florida, the season is from late August to early November. Fruit do not ripen at the same time. When ripe, the fruit turns from green to burnt orange. They also fall from the tree. The fruit is soft, sticky, and very delicious, but it needs to be separated from its skin and seeds before being used in recipes. They can be eaten out of hand when fully ripe, pureed, dried, and used in preserves, chutneys, quick breads, puddings, pies, and sweet and savory dishes. The fruit is very favored by wildlife. Persimmon fruit is an essential food source for songbirds, turkeys, and small and large mammals.
UF/IFAS Persimmon FruitUF/IFAS Persimmon Fruit
Common Persimmon Fruit. Photo: UF
Common persimmon prefers moist, well-drained, bottomland or sandy soils but is known to be very drought- and urban-tolerant. It is a fantastic tree in its adaptability to site conditions, including alkaline soil. It is commonly seen as a volunteer tree in old fields but grows slowly on dry sites. Its fruit is an edible berry that usually ripens after frost. Some cultivars do not require the frost treatment to ripen. Persimmon fruit is hard and astringent when unripe. Most American cultivars require both male and female trees for proper fruiting.
Besides fallen fruit maintenance, persimmon maintenance is easy and is suggested that it persimmon should be planted more often. Due to a coarsely branched root system, transplantation is difficult. The trees should be balled and burlapped when young or grown from containers. The wood from the tree is used for golf club heads because it is tough and almost black.
Common persimmon is troubled by a leaf-spot disease in the south. This disease causes black spots on the leaves and premature defoliation in August in the north and September in the south. The tree will not die from the disease. It is also susceptible to a vascular wilt, which can devastate established trees. There are no severe pests fort his native fruit tree, except occasional caterpillars.
For more information, please contact your local county extension Office.
What do ice cream, make-up, paint, plastic, air freshener, laundry detergent, cellophane, and rayon fabric have in common? They all have pine tree in them. There are hundreds of products that contain the cellulose or sap from the pine tree species native to Florida’s panhandle, particularly Longleaf and Slash pines.
Early foresters of the 1800’s discovered these pine species that grew tall and strong. In fact, Longleaf pines were so overharvested that there is only about 3% of the original forests remaining today. These trees not only provided a huge resource for lumber, they also supplied the fluids necessary to support the timber industry – turpentine. By “cat-facing” (cutting downward angled slashes) the trunk of pine trees, the sap would flow into collection cups placed on the trunks. It was collected and heated.
Pine tree sap- turpentine
Turpentine is a fluid obtained by the distillation of resin harvested from pine trees. As a solvent, it is used for thinning oil-based paint, for producing varnishes, and as a raw material for the chemical industry. Add some beeswax and it becomes furniture wax. In the early years, turpentine mixed with coal oil and kerosene was used as a topical wound dressing and lice treatment. Add some animal fats to make primitive vapor rub.
Terpene is the scientific term coined in 1866 to denote all hydrocarbons with the formula C10H16. The word was a shortened form of “terpentine”, the obsolete spelling of “turpentine”. Terpenes are major biosynthetic building blocks for the oils in plants. For the plants, these oils play a critical role in defense against herbivory, build disease resistance, and aid in attracting pollinators. When the resin of pine trees (turpentine) is distilled, each of the terpenes can be separated. Based on there formulation, the terpenes are the base for fragrances and flavoring in numerous consumer products. With various heating treatments, many “fresh scented” cleaning products and antiseptics can be produced. Others terpenes will add “taste” to ice cream, chewing gum, and even beer. The cellulose separated from the turpentine is used to provide “structure” to cosmetics, fabrics, impact-resistant plastics, and modern digital display screens.
Who knew that you could get so many uses from pine trees. They are not just for making 2 x 4s anymore. In fact, the 1939 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to the scientist that sorted out the 55,000 terpene compounds from turpentine. You may never look at a pine tree (or your beer) the same way again.
As the name implies, they are haunting—long stretches of standing, dead trees with exposed roots. These “ghost forests” are an unsettling scene in unsettling times for the environment. While coastal erosion is a fact of life—incoming waves, hurricanes, longshore drift of beach sand—the rate of its occurrence is startling lately.
Exposed roots of a ghost forest forming along the Escambia Bay. Photo credit: Deanie Sexton
Global rises in sea level due to increased atmospheric carbon levels mean more saltwater is moving into flat, coastal habitats that once served as a buffer from the open water. Salt is an exceedingly difficult compound for plants to handle, and only a few species have evolved mechanisms for tolerating it. Low-growing salt marshes and thick mangrove stands have always served as “first line of defense” buffers to take in wave action and absorb saltwater. If shorelines have too much wave action for marshes to form, wide stretches of sandy beach and dunes serve the same function, protecting the inland species of shrubs and trees. Many coastal areas are flat and stay at or just above sea level for thousands of yards, or even miles. This means that even a small increase in sea level can send saltwater deep into previously freshwater systems, drowning the marsh and flooding stands of oak and pine. The salt and sulfate in seawater will kill a tree quickly, although it may remain standing, dead, for months or years. Hurricanes and tropical storms exacerbate that damage, scouring out chunks of shoreline and knocking down already-unstable trees.
A slow increase in sea level could be tolerated and adapted to as salt marshes move inland and replace non-salt tolerant species. But this process of ecological succession can be interrupted if erosion and increased water levels occur too quickly. And if there is hard infrastructure inland of the marshes (like roads or buildings), the system experiences “coastal squeeze,” winnowing the marsh to a thin, eventually nonexistent ribbon, with no natural protection for that expensive infrastructure.
This diagram outlines the changes in coastal vegetation and shorelines as sea level rises. With “ghost forests,” the sea level moves into that coastal forest section. Figure credit: W. Gray, IAN Image Library
Ghost forests are popping up everywhere. Last year, Popular Mechanics magazine reported on a recently published study that used satellite imagery to document how 11% of a previously healthy forest was converted to standing dead trees along the coast of North Carolina. The trees died within a span of just 35 years (1984-2019). During that time frame, this stretch of coastline also experienced an extended drought and Category 3 Hurricane Irene. These impacts sped up the habitat loss, with over 19,000 hectares converted from forest to marsh and 1100 hectares of marsh vegetation gone, becoming open water.
A ghost forest forming along the shoreline of Blackwater Bay in Santa Rosa County. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension
Due to increased coastal flooding and saltwater standing in forested areas, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees are concerned that the historic Harriett Tubman Byway in Maryland—part of the famed underground railroad of the Civil War era—will soon be gone. Over 5,000 acres of tidal marsh have converted to open water in the area and large stands of trees have died. Even locally, trees along Escambia and Blackwater Bay are dying due to salt damage and heavy erosion. Hurricane Sally delivered a knockout punch to many remaining trees along the scenic bluffs of the bay.
Sea level has risen over 10” in the past 100 years in the Pensacola Bay area, and even mid-range Army Corps of Engineers estimates expect 0.6 to 1.4 feet of rise in the area by 2045. There are some actions we can take to mitigate future damage. Building a “living shoreline” of vegetation along a piece of waterfront property instead of using a seawall can help, especially if the vegetation growth outpaces sea level rise. You can also visit the City of Pensacola’s Climate Task Force report to learn more about climate action recommended (and being taken) locally, such as increasing the use of renewable energy and dedicating staff to sustainability measures.