Art Of Living In Florida: Floridian Trees

Perhaps the most characteristically Floridian tree is the liveoak. It is not only a beautiful tree, sturdy and long-lived and with spreading branches which provide grateful shade, but it is the favorite foster parent for the Spanish moss, that curious botanical parasite whose spores, carried by the wind, take lodging and grow into long grey streamers without any source of nutriment save what they obtain from the air and the rain.

Bedecked and festooned with Spanish moss, the live-oaks “stand like Druids of eld, with beards that reach to their bosoms,” as Longfellow pictures them in Evangeline. There are few more impressive avenues anywhere than Riverside Avenue in Jacksonville, lined on both sides with ancient live oaks, whose overarching branches meet and mingle, so that the effect is of driving through a cool, leafy tunnel from whose ceiling the streamers of grey moss hang like stalactites in a cave and into which the full glare of the sun never penetrates. The live-oak is more common in North and West Florida than it is farther south.

Comparatively little use is made today of this hardest and toughest of all the oaks, though until the passing of the era of wooden ships the live-oak forests stretching along the shores of the Gulf rang with the woodsman’s axe as the navies and merchant ship builders of the world hewed out the tough timbers to form the ribs and the bracing knees of their frigates and clippers.

One monument remains to those old days of iron men and wooden ships. That is the twelve hundred acres of live-oak forest reserve still owned by the United States Navy. It stretches for miles along the shore of Santa Rosa Sound, just eastward of Pensacola Bay. It was bought by President John Adams to form a reserve supply of timber for the Navy, and the Navy still holds it, though its only present use is as a camp site for boy scouts, whom official Washington permits to use it under strict regulations and precautions against forest fires. In this historic forest were hewn the timbers of the three-declcers which carried the Gridiron Flag to victory in the war of 1812; the seventy-two gun line-of-battle ships that thundered at the forts of Vera Cruz, the towering frigates with which Trumbull shattered the stronghold of the Barbary pirates, the swift cruisers and corvettes with which Perry opened the hermit kingdom of Japan to the commerce of the world, and all of the long list of tall fighting ships with which the young Republic challenged the world to molest it if they dared.

The gallant Constitution’s timbers were of this same Florida live-oak, and the last time that the sound of the axe was heard in the leafy depths of this last great stand of ship timber was when “Old Ironsides” was rescued from a watery grave, repaired and reconditioned and put out to sea again as bravely as when she sallied forth to meet the Guerriere. They hewed her new beams and knees at the very spot whence her first sturdy frame-work had come when Jefferson was President. No other tree, perhaps, has played such a vital part in the history of our nation.

The displacement of wooden ships by those of iron and steel has put an end to the chief economic use of the live-oak, but its parasite, Spanish moss, has become an important item of commerce. Gathering, cleaning and baling Spanish moss for shipment all over the world as a stuffing for mattresses and upholstery is a profitable industry in which a dozen or more manufacturing establishments are engaged in Florida.

Many of the trees which the visitor to Florida sees for the first time are importations from the tropical regions of the whole world, and that is true also of many of the flowering plants and shrubs. As far back as 1898 Dr. David Fairchild, a resident of Coconut Grove, and for many years chief explorer of the Foreign Plant Introduction Office of the United States Department of Agriculture, began bringing specimens from the four corners of the earth to try out their adaptability to the Florida soil and climate, and in the Plant Introduction Garden, maintained by the Department, at Chapman Field, south of Coconut Grove, is the largest collection of tropical trees and plants in America. This garden, started in Miami under Dr. Fairchild’s direction in 1898, has grown from a little six-acre plot to 160 acres, and is still overcrowded. The value of the new food-plant varieties first introduced here, measured by the prices received by farmers for their annual crops, runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars, to say nothing of the ornamental and decorative value of many of the new species thus introduced into Florida.

Among the varieties of plant life in Florida for the introduction of which Dr. Fairchild is, directly or indirectly, responsible are the tung oil tree, the Perrine lemon, the East Indian mango, the Guatemalan avocados, the crotalarias and centipede grasses, the Gosho and Tamopan persimmons and the Oriental timber bamboos, the West Indian yams, the Gold Coast jasmin, the dasheen, the chayote, the Oliver loquat, the papaya, the kudzu vine, and a great number of other trees and plants which flourish in Florida today.

Among others who have had a share in introducing new species to Florida horticulture and teaching them to grow on Florida soil, are Wilson Popenoe, C. V. Piper, Barbour Lathrop, Frank N. Meyer, Robert A. Young, who did most of the work in West Indian yams and the dasheen, Edward Palmer, O. W. Barrett, Sahra Jones, W. J. Matheson, Edward Simmonds, and the Reasoner brothers of Oneco, whose contribution to Florida’s beautification through the propagation and dissemination of the wide variety of exotic plants and trees now grown throughout the peninsula deserves recognition.

One sees banana trees spreading their graceful broad leaves throughout the state; they are ornamental but as yet Florida has not been able to compete successfully with the “Vest Indies and Central America in the banana market, though many efforts have been made to establish banana plantations, and some which seem to hold promise were started in 1936.

The mango tree is another Florida exotic. It makes a useful shade tree for lawns, in blossom it is pleasing to the eye, and its fruit is finding a widening market not only in Florida but in. the North. The “turpentine” or West Indian mango was brought to Florida by Dr. Henry Perrine, who was massacred by the Indians in 1837. Then in 1889 the Department of Agriculture imported four trees of the famous Mulgoba mango, one of which was saved by Elmer Gale and is still standing in West Palm Beach. From a seedling of this was originated in the garden of Captain Haden in Coconut Grove the noted Haden mango. This, with other varieties introduced a: Chapman Field, has made the people of South Florida mar go addicts, and shipments of this fruit to northern markets are increasing rapidly.

The papaya tree, highly decorative, with its tall, slender trunk topped by a cluster of graceful leaves and bearing in pairs its curious, melon-shaped fruit at the very top of the trunk, is another exotic widely used for ornamental planting. Its smooth, slightly insipid fruit is increasingly popular, especially as an early morning antipasto, because of its reputedly beneficial digestive effects.

Here and there in South Florida one encounters the sapodilla, another fruit-bearing ornamental tree. The sapodilla resembles a hardshelled grapefruit containing a sweetish, raspberry tinted and juicy pulp which has a flavor which many persons are sure to like.

The orange, the grapefruit, the lime, the lemon and the avocado or “alligator pear” have become so thoroughly acclimatized in Florida, and their fruits form such an important part of the state’s commerce, that their tropical or semi-tropical origins are all but forgotten. The avocado is another of the foreign fruit trees in the introduction and development of which the Plant Introduction Garden has played a substantial role.

Widely known by name among the tropical fruit trees grown in Florida is the guava. It is not a particularly ornamental tree, though many Floridians who take pleasure in see ing how many different kinds of trees they can grow in their own gardens plant the prolific guava with the others. Most people know the guava only through its ultimate product, guava jelly. That needs no advertisement to most of those who will read this book. Florida guava jelly is a familiar item of commerce in all the food markets of the world; the industry founded upon it is almost the pioneer among Florida industries based upon food products. The uncooked guava, even when fully ripe, is to most persons all but inedible; its flavor and odor can only be compared to those of a slightly scorched inner tube. But, curiously enough, guava pie, properly made by a culinary expert, is a delicacy which the few who have had the good fortune to encounter it praise unstintedly.

But why extend the list? The reader whose tastes and interests run along horticultural or botanical lines can see for himself when he goes to Florida such a profusion of beautiful, curious and interesting trees, shrubs and plants as few of the great botanical gardens of the world can show him, and all of them growing out-of-doors. One of the most intriguing spots on Florida’s East Coast is the McKee Jungle Gardens near Vero Beach, where one to whom the rare and the exotic appeal can spend days or even weeks, fascinated by the strange vegetation brought from every corner of the world. Another show place for Florida’s horticultural possibilities is the Cypress Gardens at Winter Haven where, in a sylvan setting of towering trees, beautiful lakes and flowing brooks the visitors walks along shaded paths through a profusion of plants and blossoms, acres of gardenias, azaleas and rhododendrons, while almost every variety of native bird flashes by on glittering wings, warbles a welcome from the tree tops or st ands in longlegged, dignified silence on the edge of the water,

We have attempted so far to sketch in rough outline the major reasons why people come to Florida, and to suggest the highlights of interest which attract the winter tourist. We now invite the reader to accompany us on a personally conducted sightseeing and inspection motor tour of the whole state, in the course of which he will see for himself at least the more obvious economic opportunities which Florida offers to the permanent settler and the investor and how others have availed themselves of those opportunities. As we proceed we shall get a picture of Florida’s background of history and tradition. Before we have completed the circuit, we feel assured, the reader will have succumbed to the spell of Florida and have picked for himself the spot where he will make his tax-free Florida home.