Francis E. "Jack" Putz: Our mystery trees

Published: Monday, January 11, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 11:43 p.m.

Often it takes a visitor to remind us of how wonderful it is to live in this part of the world and how much we have to learn about our environment.

In my case, the recent visitor was a fellow ecologist from Spain. It gave me great pleasure to show him gators at Alachua Sink, bald eagles stealing fish from ospreys over Newnan's Lake and bear cubs with their momma near Riverside Island, in Ocala National Forest. He was overwhelmed by the amount of wildness that we have so close to home.

His many probing questions further served to remind me of just how good we have it here in North Central Florida. I was especially stimulated by his questions about pond pine and other native tree species; questions that I couldn't answer!

Of the six species of pine native to Gainesville, pond pine is certainly the least well known. I do know that it's a swamp species that looks like a slash and loblolly cross, except for the tufts of needles on scruffy little branches that adorn the trunks of even large trees.

Although the roundish cones are only supposed to open to release their seeds after being heated in a fire, hence the scientific name Pinus serotina, many cones were open on the trees we saw at Morningside Nature Center.

My visitor studies fire-stimulated plant regeneration in the cork oak ecosystems of Spain, so he wanted to know all about pond pine seeds and seedlings, as well at the life spans of the trees and their age of first reproduction. Although I've been teaching about the ecosystems of Florida for nearly three decades, I couldn't answer most of his questions.

Instead of being embarrassed about my ignorance, I shared his enthusiasm about having basic biological mysteries to solve right here in our backyard.

The scientific literature on pond pine is scarce, perhaps because the species is not favored by timber industries and because it is characteristic of the isolated wetlands that have suffered so much ditching and draining.

Pond pine isn't the only local tree species with mysteries yet to be revealed and horticultural potentials yet to be realized. For example, I wonder whether how plane elms would do in retention basins and in wet spots under power lines where large trees are prohibited. Loblolly bay is another lovely tree species with great potential, but someone needs to figure out what it needs to be happy other than a lot of water and acidic soil.

I find it exhilarating that some of the most basic facts about Gainesville trees are waiting to be revealed by the curious. We have ahead the possibility of decades of investigations about many dozens of species. One result could be increased diversity in our urban forest.

Francis E. "Jack" Putz is a professor of biology at the University of Florida and chairs Gainesville's Tree Advisory Board.

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