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Oldsmar to replace dead and dying laurel oak trees

In the 1920s, city planners decided to beautify the downtown area by planting trees in parks, on city property and on the city's rights of way. The result was a lush, green canopy composed mostly of laurel oaks.

Now, many of the trees are nearing the end of their life cycle or face other life-threatening problems.

So far, more than 30 dead or decaying trees, 90 percent of them laurel oaks, have been removed. But residents shouldn't fear a major wipeout, said city Parks and Recreation Director Craig Reed.

"The number of removals is small compared to the number of trees in the canopy," Reed said.

But to guarantee shade in the future, the city has initiated a planting program.

Laurel oaks are known for their short life _ about 70 years, said Alan Mayberry, urban forester for the city of Clearwater.

"They are a relatively short-lived tree when you compare them to a pine tree which can live about 150 years, a live oak which can live up to 350 years or a bald cypress which can live 1,200 years," he said. "Laurel oaks are not as adept at acclimating to stresses encountered in an urban environment."

Because of this, the trees have gotten a bad rap, Mayberry said.

"That is not to say we shouldn't plant laurel oaks," he said. "We should, because we need to diversify our tree species in landscapes. (Laurel oaks) must have adequate room to grow and be planted in acidic, organic soil."

It's not just old age threatening the city's trees. When the city replaced sidewalks downtown a couple of years ago, many of the trees' root systems were damaged. Lightning strikes have killed a few of them. Others have succumbed to diseases.

All laurel oaks will be replaced with live oaks wherever site conditions permit, Reed said. However, in restricted growth areas, trees such as the winged elm and the Drake elm will be planted.

More young trees are being planted on city property where space permits. Tree species are chosen for their long life span, resistance to disease and insects, freeze tolerance and suitability for wildlife habitation.

"We are trying to diversify our species so that if we have a problem with disease or insects the whole canopy will not be put at risk," Reed said. "Also, it is our policy to replace a tree for every one removed, but it may not be in the same place as the previous one."

Reed said the dying trees, which had trunk diameters from 20 to 50 inches, will be replaced with smaller nursery trees.

"They will all be Florida Grade A specimens pruned in the nursery to have a single leader," he said. "This eliminates crotches, which are a source of weakness in the trees."

Reed said the budget for tree replacement and pruning is about $3,000 a year.

The city became aware of the problems of an aging canopy when it commissioned the F&W Forestry Co. in Gainesville to do a tree survey to identify and diagnose the condition of all city trees. The company categorized all trees into three groups.

Category A trees are dead or dying. All have been removed.

Category B trees are healthy but need pruning, fertilization or other maintenance to remain healthy or not endanger the public. There are several hundred of these trees, the majority of which are laurel oaks.

There are several hundred Category C trees that are healthy and need only minimal standard maintenance.

The Parks and Recreation Department has divided the city into four maintenance zones. Each year, trees in a designated zone will receive pruning and other maintenance. The zones will be rotated on a five-year cycle, Reed said.