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Hedging Against the Wind PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Shimonski -- BT Contributor   
June 2013

Strategies for helping your trees stand up to the rigors of hurricane season

I Pix_YourGarden_6-13was very lucky in the formative years of my career to have listened to older people who’d been successful in their own horticultural careers and businesses. Over the years, I’ve had several mentors who have taken the time to explain things to me, and I made sure to listen and file away the information.

They have all since passed away, but there is never a day that I accomplish something and don’t remember the person who very patiently explained to me how to make it happen.

A couple of weeks ago I was giving a talk at the annual seminar of the Florida Landscape Inspectors Association and ventured into the area of “hurricane horticulture.” I had brought up the topic of ficus trees -- specifically, how there were hundreds of species found pan-tropically that certainly did not all possess the same growing characteristics as our commonly overplanted Ficus benjamina.

I showed the audience a photo similar to the one that accompanies this article. (This is a photo of a banyan tree at Jungle Island, a Ficus benghalensis.)

One of the interesting characteristics shared by many species of ficus is aerial roots. These are roots that grow down from the tree’s branches and, once they reach the ground, these roots (usually there are many) coalesce and form a single trunk, thereby supporting the branch above both structurally and with water and nutrients.

The tree in the photo has many trunk-like structures supporting the long branches above. These are from aerial roots that I induced on that ficus tree in the year 2000. I spent an entire Sunday working from a 40-foot lift, cutting into the bark below the lateral trunks with a hammer and chisel and then wrapping the cuts with burlap. (It took a couple of weeks just to get all the sap off my hands.)

Most of my efforts paid off. Within a couple of months, hundreds of little red roots were growing from around the incisions I had made.

I will never forget the gentleman who taught me how to make these roots grow. His name was Ralph. He worked with Arthur Vining Davis as a landscaper, and later with Franz Scherr, the man who opened the original Parrot Jungle in what is now Pinecrest. Ralph had induced the roots on the banyan tree at that park. I was so fascinated when I heard this could be done that I couldn’t wait to try it myself. Unfortunately, I did have to wait -- 20 years -- but now I know it works.

I have since induced aerial roots on a number of species of ficus. I think it looks really cool and artistic, but what I’m really thinking about is supporting these trees during a hurricane. We all know that some species of ficus have a habit of failing in high winds. It’s very common to see entire trees of Ficus benjamina turn over.

(This species of fig evolved in Malaysia and Southeast Asia, where typhoons do not occur, so it did not evolve the deep roots -- along with very strong branches -- needed to withstand high winds.)

Ficus benjamina is a great landscape tree if you can control the whitefly issues (hopefully in a sustainable manner, as we do at Jungle Island). It grows rapidly and provides great shade. It also grows copious amounts of aerial roots. To support these trees in high winds and preserve them at the park, I had the landscape crew place telephone poles underneath critical lateral branches.

When the wind blew the tree in the direction of the pole, the branch merely pressed down on the pole and did not move any farther. I then began to grow aerial roots down these poles to the point that many of the poles now are covered completely with coalescing aerial roots. No one has any idea that there is a wooden pole underneath, one that will continue to support the tree in high winds.

I have done this with numerous species of ficus with great success. What a cheap and practical way to help preserve our trees in hurricanes.

So now that hurricane season is once again upon us, don’t assume it’s time to go crazy butchering your trees or cutting them down. Giving your palms the pineapple look by cutting off all the lower fronds will not only not help in high winds, it will cause micro nutrient problems that can eventually kill the palm.

Planning for hurricane season, or just planning for healthy, long-living trees, should start when a tree is planted. The right tree, in the right place, planted properly, pruned according to established arboricultural practices, along with a little common sense, will give you a great looking landscape.

 

Jeff Shimonski is an ISA-certified municipal arborist, director of horticulture at Jungle Island, and principal of Tropical Designs of Florida. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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