Trees and palms are not created equal, especially when it comes to surviving tropical storms and hurricanes. Where some stand fearless against high winds and pounding rain, others topple quickly or die later from insects and disease that enter through damaged limbs.
Some trees are simply victims of bad location. If they're too close to the house, driveway, sidewalk, swimming pool or other structure, their root system and stability are compromised. Trees under power and telephone lines also are at a disadvantage. Which trees survive and which ones fail?
According to the University of Florida, certain characteristics can predict whether a tree might survive a major storm. Those with a fighting chance are young but well established, preventively pruned, have one dominant trunk, are deeply rooted and grow in a group. Trees that are likely to fail include those that are large, recently planted, have co-dominant branches, have had construction activities within 20 feet of the trunk, grow in shallow soil, have large pruning cuts, have hollow openings in the lower trunk or have wet soil caused by abundant rain.
In a study of 5,000 trees hit by Hurricanes Erin (with 85 mph sustained winds) and Opal (125 mph winds) in the Florida Panhandle in 1995, university researchers found that the most hurricane-resistant trees are the live oak (Quercus virginiana) and sabal palm or cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto). The worst was the shallow-rooted sand pine (Pinus clausa), which shouldn't be planted near structures.
Before you buy a new tree, make sure it meets the Florida Department of Agriculture's standards. There are four grades, from highest quality to lowest: Florida Fancy, No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3. Trees typically aren't labeled, so ask at the nursery and request to speak to a certified horticultural professional if there is one on staff. Don't buy trees with a V-fork at the trunk because that structure will weaken the tree as it grows. Always choose a tree with a straight, central leader (trunk), with limbs growing perpendicular to the trunk.
With the exception of queen palms, which sustained considerable damage in recent hurricanes, many palms are stormworthy. The university recommends several palms that did well during Hurricane Charley: Chinese fan palm (Livistonia chinensis), Christmas palm (Veitchia merrillii) and pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii).
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.