ST. PETERSBURG — Since buying her home almost 18 years ago, Angela Adams has never quite known what to call the towering tree at Walnut Street and 20th Avenue NE.
Experts estimated that the tree was between 150 and 200 years old and at least as many feet high — and the hundreds of passers-by had their guesses. Most saw the buttresses along the trunk and thought it to be a banyan. Others were content with just calling it the "tree of life."
The tree wasn't looking so lively to 57-year-old Mel Bettcher as he drove home from work Tuesday night. He thought it more closely resembled the one toppled in the movie Avatar. After admiring the tree as he does with every commute to work, he returned home to see one of its bulkiest branches on the ground, consuming much of the Adams family's yard and attracting the attention of even more drivers, joggers and walkers than usual along Coffee Pot Boulevard.
What brought it down? With only light rains falling Tuesday, some think it must have been weight.
But after reviewing a photograph of the fallen limb, internationally certified arborist Graham Orr came up with another diagnosis: overpruning. Orr, who'd grown familiar with the tree and identified it as a banyan, said too much of its green tissue had been removed, releasing a chemical known as pheromone that attracted insects that sucked the leaves for nutrients.
"This is a chronic problem with most of the trees in the urban landscape," said Orr, owner of the St. Petersburg-based Palms Tree Service. "These limbs don't fall off these trees if man is not involved."
Over the years, the Adamses have taken pains to assure the safety of the tree. They spent thousands of dollars on inspections to make sure it wasn't sick or too heavy. When necessary, landscapers have had to trim branches to cut the tree's weight, Adams said.
Initial inspections have indicated that the tree should survive, "but we aren't sure yet," Adams said. She said a crew will soon clear away the branch and debris.
"It is very sad to lose such a large portion of it, but I was just extremely grateful no one was hurt," Adams said. "Our house wasn't damaged, and no one's car was damaged."
Adams said she was attending a conference in Tampa when her son called. He was inside when the house shook. At first, he thought it had something to do with the renovation of a house across the street.
"Then he, of course, saw the tree," she said.
The most recent inspection revealed no cause for concern, Adams said. Her tree service company could not be reached for comment.
Since moving to St. Petersburg from Orlando last year, the Bettchers have taken visitors to see the tree and capture images. In one photo they remember, Mary Helen Bettcher's 6-foot-tall sister stood by the roots, dwarfed by them.
Mark Carson and Jaima Tucker, of St. Petersburg, never have to drive through the intersection of Walnut Street and 20th Avenue NE, but several times a week, the two get off the couch for an evening drive with one destination in mind: the tree.
"When we first met three years ago, he asked me where the best tree is," said Tucker, admiring the tree from the curb Wednesday. "I said it was in this yard, and he knew exactly which tree I meant."
Reach C. Ryan Barber at email@example.com or (727) 893-8505. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/cryanbarber.