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Q&A | Elizabeth A. Hammond

Height was key factor in St. Pete palm tree selection

A recently planted Medjool date palm in a median on Fourth Street N near Gandy Boulevard carried a price tag of $5,200. The palms were selected because of their height and drought tolerance, says Elizabeth A. Hammond, a city project coordinator and landscaper. Once established, “they generally don’t need to be watered.”

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

A recently planted Medjool date palm in a median on Fourth Street N near Gandy Boulevard carried a price tag of $5,200. The palms were selected because of their height and drought tolerance, says Elizabeth A. Hammond, a city project coordinator and landscaper. Once established, “they generally don’t need to be watered.”

ST. PETERSBURG — Budget shortfalls? Check. Severe drought? Check.

Expensive Medjool date palm trees on Fourth Street N? Check.

Hold on. Didn't Pinellas Park come under fire last year for importing 14 non-native Medjool date palms from Arizona at $6,360 each? (Check).

Are not the water and money crises more dire these days? What gives?

Elizabeth A. Hammond, a city project coordinator and landscaper who checked off on the Fourth Street N Beautification Project, says there is good reason St. Petersburg this year plunked down $36,400 on seven of these fancy palms ($5,200 each).

A few years ago, things weren't looking so good on the median from 54th Avenue N to Gandy Boulevard. The greenery there was first planted in 1998. Over time, the centerpiece green buttonwood trees, the white daylilies and other plants had become battered by time and traffic.

So a few years ago the city applied for a state grant that would pay for new plants. It submitted plans, which included the Medjool palms, to the department of transportation. The state requires certain heights for trees on busy roads. And so the towering Medjool date palms, surrounded by smaller plantings, were chosen to replace clusters of green buttonwood trees.

The $100,000 project, part of a $2 million grant, began in February and should be completed this month. That cost includes installation and maintenance by an outside firm. Over time, the seven Medjool date palms, imported from Thermal, Calif., will require less watering and maintenance than the buttonwoods, Hammond said. Since 1998, some 250 Medjool date trees have been planted by the city.

Hammond took a few minutes to talk with the Times about the project:

What are the state requirements for this road?

The issue with all the materials on the DOT right of way is you have to meet certain height requirements, so it doesn't impede traffic and visibility requirements. The fronds can't grow below 14 1/2 feet. So you have to have a tree that's higher than, say, 16 feet. These trees now are 20 feet, and can grow to over 100 feet. They grow very slowly.

As a landscaper, what do you think of this tree?

The Medjool date palm is very majestic. It's ideal for a corridor that has the expanse that Fourth Street does because it gives you a much higher visibility than a smaller tree. They're also highly drought tolerant. They're very durable trees. … In the '70s and early '80s, (the tree of choice) used to be the Canary Island date palm, but those are no longer available. The Medjool was kind of the replacement.

How much water is being used for these trees?

I think we are putting down, right now, 3,000 gallons (of reclaimed water) a day. We have a truck that holds 2,000 to 3,000 gallons. For the next 30 to 60 days, it will run from 3,000 to 5,000 gallons daily through the establishment period. … After a year, they generally don't need to be watered.

Why are they so expensive?

They're desert trees. Their origin is North Africa. They come from Arizona and California, where they are grown for their fruit. Then once they reach their height where it's not feasible to harvest the fruit, they are sold as a byproduct. The unit cost comes from the cost of the tree, but also the freight cost in driving them across the states to get them here. … The next best thing that we have is the native Florida date palm, but the issue that we have right now is that it doesn't meet DOT specifications. Maybe there are some, but not in quantity. We are maybe five, 10 years away from them being readily available.

Is there an upshot?

The percentage (spent on the trees) of the $2 million that we have spent on landscaping is a very small percentage. … There are seven on this project, and the city of St. Pete at this time prefers to use them as an accent. The majority of trees on this site are crape myrtle standards, which are a flowering tree.

Luis Perez can be reached at Lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

Height was key factor in St. Pete palm tree selection 04/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 25, 2009 4:31am]

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