Wednesday, June 20, 2018
News Roundup

Jack Siebenthaler planted seeds that created theme parks, homes and shopping malls

CLEARWATER — In 1989, concerned residents of Austin, Texas, called Jack Siebenthaler at his Clearwater home with an emergency: Someone had tried to kill the town's most famous tree. The Treaty Oak stood 50 feet high and was more than three centuries old. According to legend, colonist Stephen F. Austin made a boundary treaty with Native Americans under its shade,

Someone had poisoned the tree with herbicide. Mr. Siebenthaler, then the executive director of the American Society of Consulting Arborists, helped save part of the oak.

Mr. Siebenthaler grew up in an Ohio family landscaping business that dated back to the 19th century, but might have achieved more recognition on his own than his ancestors.

Mr. Siebenthaler also was a consulting arborist for Busch Gardens, Cypress Gardens and Walt Disney World. He was honored by two first ladies in the White House for his innovations, which included a system of delivering time-release nutrients to tree roots beneath pavement.

Mr. Siebenthaler died Aug. 29, of congestive heart failure. He was 87.

In 1992, he was summoned to Mexico to rescue the Tree of Santa Maria del Tule, one of the world's oldest and thickest trees. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Montezuma cypress stands nearly 100 feet tall, measures 114 feet in diameter and shows up in Aztec chronicles.

Age estimates vary within the low thousands of years. Horticulturists call the tree a taxodium mucronatum. Visitors call it the Tree of Life.

Mr. Siebenthaler declared the cypress in "poor vigor" since streets and buildings had gone up around it. He nourished its roots and improved its irrigation. With the help of his wife, Mr. Siebenthaler slipped a few seeds of the tree into the folds of his laundry and smuggled them out of the country.

Mr. Siebenthaler was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1924, and grew up working in the family nursery.

Between 1942 and 1948, he earned an agriculture degree from Cornell University and was called up on active duty from the Marine Corps Reserve. In the meantime, he married Ann Kurtz. Mr. Siebenthaler served 17 months in the Korean War, where he led a platoon in the Chosin Reservoir and was later shot.

After the war, Mr, Siebenthaler continued to serve with the Marine reserves and later retired as a lieutenant colonel.

He left the family business in 1960. After turning down a dozen other job offers from around the country, he and his wife loaded their five children and a German shepherd into a Volkswagen van and headed for Merritt Island. Eight years later, he moved to the Clearwater area, where he worked at local nurseries and then started his own consulting company.

He contributed numerous guest columns to the Times over the years, covering such topics as the role of bark in protecting a tree, methods of pruning, and which blossoming trees to look out for next.

Trees are the biggest living beings in our world, he once told the Times. Like his father and grandfather, he communicated with them.

"I don't talk to them, but I sort of think to them," Mr. Siebenthaler said. "I carry on a mental conversation. I'll say, 'Gosh, you're a beautiful thing.' Or, 'I sure like your foliage.' It's kind of an unconscious thing I do."

He was honored many times for his work, including the landscaping design of Seminole Shopping Center and his work as a consultant for the city of Clearwater and the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service. He was a former president of the Florida Nurserymen and Growers Association and a founding member of the Florida Botanical Gardens. For his contributions, first lady Pat Nixon thanked Mr. Siebenthaler at an awards ceremony. Mr. Siebenthaler and his wife returned to the Rose Garden when Rosalyn Carter invited them back in 1977.

Mr. Siebenthaler also did the landscaping for the original Clearwater Mall.

He retired in 2003. His wife had died eight years earlier. Mr. Siebenthaler enjoyed taking cruises, particularly in Alaska, and dining out. He was a regular at Alfano's Restaurant in Clearwater.

"He was a very private man," said Becky Siebenthaler, his daughter and caregiver the last several years. "You had to draw things out of him. He didn't just offer up tidbits for conversation."

Mr. Siebenthaler has willed his body to medical research.

Part of his legacy stands on the west side of Florida Botanical Gardens: a Montezuma cypress along with a plaque bearing the name of Ann Siebenthaler.

He planted it nearly 20 years ago with one of the seeds smuggled from the Tule cypress.

It's 20 feet tall now, just getting started.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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