Every year at the end of April the nation observes Arbor Day, in recognition of the vital role that trees play in the systems that support life on our planet. Florida is home to many iconic trees, including those that quickly come to mind – palm trees, rare longleaf pine forests, and mangroves.
Our trees in Florida and across the globe provide life sustaining benefits. In our cities, trees provide shade that reduces heat and brings nature to our urban landscape. Our longleaf pine forests, once found across the state, are home to diverse wildlife -- endemic and endangered species, and filter water that nourishes our aquifers and drinking water supply. Along our coasts, mangroves offer protection from waves and shoreline erosion as well as habitat for marine life.
Here’s a glance of Royal Palms, Thatch and Buccaneer Palms. © Joe Shlabotnik © Drew Avery via Flickr CC BY 2.0 and © Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 (from left to right)
In our subtropical and tropical climate, many species of palm trees thrive. Some of Florida’s native species include the Royal Palm, Thatch Palm, Buccaneer Palm, and our state tree, the Sabal Palm (Sabal palmetto). The Sabal Palm is widely distributed in Florida, it has fan shaped leaves – or fronds – and grows to about 40’ tall. Also known as the cabbage palm, it’s hardy and cold tolerant, it is used by birds for nesting, its fruit provides food for wildlife, flowers attract pollinators, and leaves provide habitat for frogs and bats. Interestingly, palm trees do not have the common tree ring growth pattern of other trees – they have fibers rather than rings and the woody tissue makes them flexible in wind. Equally iconic in our state is the saw palmetto with its horizontal trunk and much of the plant underground, its fronds are seen commonly as ground cover. Many animals rely on palmettos as shelter or for nest material. Its berries are an important source of food for black bears, deer, raccoons, gopher tortoises, bobwhite quail and other wildlife.
Saw palmettos line the freshwater creek at Tiger Creek Preserve in North Florida. © Ralph Pace
"Saw palmettos are a common shrub-like species that is also a palm, but more of an underground forest, and a very important part of our upland systems,” said Beatriz Pace-Aldana, Conservation Biologist, The Nature Conservancy in Florida.
Before the Sabal Palm was adopted in 1953 as the state tree, other trees, including longleaf pine, were considered for the honor.
Longleaf Pine at Disney Wilderness Preserve in Central Florida. © Gabriel Reynoso / The Nature Conservancy
longleaf pine trees
Longleaf pine trees are named for their long needles – up to 18 inches long – the longest needles of the pines. Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) may live to be over 300 years old. Their forests are diverse ecosystems which support many plants and animals. Species-rich longleaf pine forests once stretched across the South, 90-million acres nearly unbroken from Virginia to Florida to Texas, including open pine savannas with a lush understory of native grasses and groundcover. Today about 2 percent of longleaf pine forests remain. Currently, Florida is home to approximately 2.15 million acres of this ecosystem, much of it fragmented. The Conservancy is working to restore these rare forests.
Controlled fire is important to the health of the longleaf forest. The pine trees are resistant to fire and their growth depends upon conditions created by fire. Their life cycle begins when fire prepares the soil for a pine seed to germinate by clearing vegetation and transforming it into fertilizer. Longleaf pine seeds require soil with little ground cover to allow seeds to be in contact with ground to germinate. When seedlings form, pine needles appear to be coming almost directly up from the ground. The young seedling bud is protected by tight needles while it grows a deep taproot. The seedling stays in this “grass stage” for several years. As the tree matures and a second fire occurs, the bud is freed and a tree quickly grows taller above the fire line. Fire stimulates the next generation of trees in the longleaf forest and the Conservancy utilizes its expertise in prescribed fire management to support these ecosystems.
Longleaf pine marked for known red-cockaded woodpecker cavity at Disney Wilderness Preserve. © Gabriel Reynoso / The Nature Conservancy
Longleaf pine forests are home to diverse plants and animals, including several native or endangered species. The longleaf pine seeds provide a food source for birds and other wildlife. The trees themselves provide critical habitat to the red-cockaded woodpecker, which requires live pine trees in which it creates a nest cavity. The forests are home to gopher tortoises, whose burrows provide habitat for other animals, including the eastern indigo snake.
Longleaf pine forests benefit humans as well as wildlife. They support our freshwater systems, provide natural resilience to catastrophic storms, and help sustain the regional economy.
White ibis wading along the mangrove at Blowing Rocks Preserve. © Ralph Pace
Mangroves are tropical trees that thrive in the loose, wet soils and salt water along Florida’s coastline. Three species of mangroves are native to Florida: red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), sometimes known as walking trees with easily recognizable prop roots that stretch from branches to water, black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) with finger like projections or pneumatophores that protrude from the soil, and white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa) which are further upland with no visible aerial root system and have long, elliptical, yellowish leaves. All three species flower, the red and black have white flowers, and the white have yellow flowers.
Mangroves line the coastline at Blowing Rocks Preserve and serve as a natural defense for people. © Ralph Pace
Mangroves can form thickets of ‘forests’ that are critical to supporting healthy coastal areas. They cycle important nutrients in the water and soil and provide food, shelter and nursery habitat for a variety of marine species including shrimp, crabs, and many sport and commercial fish species such as redfish, snook and tarpons. Branches of the mangroves act as bird rookeries and nesting areas for coastal wading birds including egrets, herons, cormorants and roseate spoonbills. In some areas, red mangrove roots are ideal for oysters, which can attach to the portion of the roots that hang into the water. Endangered species such as the smalltooth sawfish, manatee, hawksbill sea turtle, Key Deer and the Florida panther rely on this habitat during some stage of their life cycle.
Mangroves are one of our first defenses against rising seas. They provide shoreline protection and act as natural barriers that buffer the shore from wind and waves, currents and tides, helping to reduce erosion and accumulate sediments that stabilize and build the shore.
A look under water as mangroves root into our shoreline at Blowing Rocks Preserve. © Ralph Pace
“Mangrove forests straddle the connection between land and sea. They are special habitats that provide safe harbor for animals and nurture our estuaries. Mangroves, and all forests, are places where we discover nature’s secrets, when we take time to stop, look, listen and appreciate,” noted Anne Birch, Marine Program Manager, The Nature Conservancy in Florida.
The Nature Conservancy continues protection and restoration efforts of our important forests, from the Panhandle to the Keys, on behalf of people and nature itself.