published Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Freeze leaves Florida Panhandle with dead trees

  • photo
    Palm trees surround the Hyatt Place hotel near the Pensacola International Airport in Pensacola, Fla., in this April 3, 2014, file photo. Dead palm fronds litter yards and streets throughout the region where the non-native, tropical trees were hit hard by this winter's abnormally cold weather.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

PENSACOLA, Fla. — From airports to hotels to schools and churches, non-native palm and fruit trees are a popular and costly part of landscaping throughout Florida's Panhandle. Nowadays those trees are mostly brown and withering because of the region's unusually cold winter.

Brown trees line neighborhood streets, shopping centers and major thoroughfares. Dead palm fronds, lemon and orange trees peak out above blooming hydrangeas, dogwoods and azaleas.

The Panhandle may be part of Florida, but it's not tropical like Miami — it's over 300 miles further north and the average low temperature in December and January is 40 degrees. Freezing temperatures aren't uncommon and this year temperatures plunged into the 20s and below. The region was blanketed by ice for a time.

"Unfortunately there are a lot of South Florida trees that are coming up and being planted in our climate that are not really tolerant of our rare cold freezes," said Carol Lord, an environmental horticulture technician with the Escambia County Extension Service, which covers Pensacola.

But this reality doesn't stop some Panhandle residents from wanting to plant warm-weather trees that are stereotypically Floridian.

"Most of the people down here are not native — they move to the area and immediately they've got to go out and get a few palms, a citrus or two in their yard, it's just a natural thing," said Mike Robertson, owner of Mike's Garden, a Gulf Breeze-based landscaping company.

"'I want to show my friends back North, 'Here we are in Florida with an orange," he said, laughing.

Depending on the type of palm, one tree can cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

"They are not cheap," Lord said. "People need to do their research on which palm tree varieties are the best for the region before making the investment," Lord said.

Gulf Breeze homeowner Wayne Story could lose thousands of dollars in landscaping including a mature sago palm, a split-leaf philodendron and a Canary Island date palm. All are native to warmer climates.

"This philodendron covered this whole area, you can see that it was so spread out that it killed off some of the grass when it was alive," Story said while giving a tour of cold-weather losses to his manicured waterfront property.

Story said the trees were recommended to him by his landscaper when he planted then more than 15 years ago and that that they have done well through other cold snaps, hurricanes and dry spells. But Story isn't sure the trees will come back from this winter's abnormally cold weather.

Louis Kahn, owner of Palm Source, a Pensacola-based landscaping company, said he gets calls daily from people wanting him to determine if their trees are dead.

"If the tree isn't buckled over, I probably couldn't tell you it was dead," Kahn said. He expects the region to look a lot greener in a few months when the trees have had time to recover in warmer weather.

Kahn and other experts said the key to a palm's survival is its meristem, which extends from the center of the tree. If the meristem is dead, the tree cannot be saved, they said.

The entrance to the Pensacola airport is lined with Washington palm trees that now look more like totem poles because their tops have been trimmed back in hope of promoting new growth.

Trees throughout Pensacola Beach look much the same.

Many people are opting to replace lost landscaping with less-expensive alternatives that tend to withstand cold better, Robertson said.

But many Panhandle residents will still be looking to plant palm, citrus and other trees because they want their property to look like the rest of Florida.

"Everybody is looking for that piece of paradise and I think a palm tree is representative a good life in the tropics," Kahn said.

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