I have long held an affinity for our natural environment. As a child I loved seeing the changing colors of fall leaves in Wisconsin. They just simply enthralled as whirling seeds of maple, bright red, announced the arrival of spring, even more than the new flowers to me. As time passed my family moved to Florida. Gone were these ebbing tides of the seasons, everything here stayed green all year. Now oaks with their tapestries of moss signaled the passage of time. Blanketing everything with their leaves at random, pollen choking the air, acorns plinking off car roofs. I loved their history but did not know how they change our native and suburban areas.
Perhaps more dangerous than walking out your front door as J.R.R. Tolkien admonished, I read a book, “Oak: The Frame of Civilization.” The book now is tattered and worn and often referenced. The author related how people used oak for food, shelter, transportation, and names. Inspired, I became a Park Ranger and learned more about our native ecosystems and worked to preserve and restore them. This introduced me to another aspect of oaks. Through human suppression of fires, they entered the pine flatwoods, changing an ancient balance.
Sadly, what makes oaks so impressive in hardwood forests of the north causes major problems. The root systems reach 4 to 7 times the crown’s diameter and work their way into urban infrastructure, including water and sewer pipes, and weave a tapestry so dense the gopher tortoise cannot dig through them. A keystone species, the tortoise burrows are home to 350 some animals. Also, oaks soak up a lot of water. An 8-inch tree can draw 5 gallons of water an hour from the ground, far more than the pine flatwoods that once swayed where the oaks dominate today. Finally, oak leaves that pile up on the sides of roadways and yards can be a source of nitrogen that flows into our bays and estuaries during storms.
In my former park, Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, the restored pine flatwoods trail contrasts the area along the Military Road, which has been altered by oak, and illustrates the possibilities for restoration. While it may not be practical to have pine flatwoods among our homes, we can still choose alternatives to oak. Florida Red Cedar, Yaupon Holly (with caffeinated leaves), Pond Cypress, and many other trees are more beneficial to Florida’s ecosystems with fewer problems.
Making simple changes to our choice in community plantings benefits all our interconnected ecosystems, from upland habitats to coastal wetlands. Local ordinances typically require that the tree pose a hazard in order for it to be removed; habitat restoration is not an approved reason for removal. However, we can work with arborists and native plant nurseries to begin the transition from oaks to more Florida-friendly trees by promoting policies that incentivize those trees and continuing to share information so people can make better choices. Doing so will increase the diversity of animals and insects, protect our waterways, and ensure a beautiful Florida for generations to come.