Arborists are working to revive what may be the oldest and most treasured tree in Pinellas County after an effort to showcase the majestic Baranoff Oak blocked its ability to get the nutrients it needs to survive.
Safety Harbor spent $350,000 in 2005 to construct a decorative tribute to the downtown oak, including a parking lot, red brick plaza, statues, a pedestrian walkway and benches where people can sit and admire the thick branches draped with moss.
But arborists say that well-intentioned project caused the tree to get sick by leaving a relatively small area of unpaved ground where the tree can obtain vital water and nutrients.
About a dozen arborists and other volunteers will work together this week to undo the damage, hoping to restore the tree's health. City workers have already begun to peel back some of the brick and remove the statues. Among other tasks, volunteers will spread customized dirt, specially manufactured to give the tree the nutrients it needs. And the city is installing irrigation and lightning protection systems.
The tree's thinning upper canopy is a telltale sign it's in trouble, said Alan Mayberry, an arborist working on the project.
"We're trying to catch this now," he said. "It's never going to regain its former glory as far as being a dense crown up above. But I would say the decline is mostly reversible."
Safety Harbor has allocated $20,000 to help the tree, although City Manager Matt Spoor estimated the cost would be much less. He said the city will do whatever is necessary, within reason, to make sure the tree survives.
"The goal of building the park was to preserve the tree," said Spoor, who was hired by Safety Harbor after the project was under way. "I think everyone would agree there may have been some unintended consequences."
The tree stands on private property between Main and Second streets, adjacent to the Safety Harbor Public Library. UCITA Properties Inc. owns the property, but is sharing it with the city to preserve the tree and allow the public to enjoy the space.
The Baranoff Oak may be one of Safety Harbor's most famous residents.
The tree is named after Salem Baranoff, a doctor who owned the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa. The Live Oak Society of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation placed the tree on its historic registry of live oaks maintained since 1934.
With a trunk nearly 20 feet in diameter, experts estimate the tree weighs about 800 tons.
Joe Samnik, who owns a tree consulting firm in Palm Harbor, is leading the effort to restore the tree. He said it is 300 years old, although estimates of its age vary widely.
American Consulting Engineers of Florida constructed Baranoff Park in 2005. It's unclear whether the company consulted an arborist during the project.
City documents show the company went out of its way not to disturb the tree. But according to Samnik, they didn't do enough. "Our job is to turn back the hands of time," Samnik said. "Other than keeping water on it and keeping people off the root system, there's nothing I can do besides stand back, keep people off the roots and pray."
Mike Lohmeyer, 55, said his family has enjoyed the oak for generations. His father played on the tree, he said. And as a boy of 10 or 12, he and his friends climbed and dangled from the oak's thick lower limbs, seemingly designed for childhood mischief.
Best he can remember, climbing was banned on the tree when his sons, now in their 20s, were young. "It's more than just a tree. It's seen many people in its life, generation after generation," he said. "If that tree could talk, what it could tell you would be phenomenal."
Times news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or 850-323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.