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Tropical Trees Suffer Wrath of Wilma

3 November 2005

Wilma StrikesMEXICO

Mexico's Dr. Alfredo Marin Barrier Botanic Garden has been destroyed by Hurricane Wilma as the eye of the storm passed over Quintana Roo's Morelos Port between 21-23 October. The 22-year old garden is urgently looking for donations to recover itself and reconstruct destroyed walkways, buildings and plantings. 


The mammoth baobab tree at The Kampong of the National Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida is waiting for rescue, covered with its own branches and leaves to protect it from the sun after being leveled by Hurricane Wilma.

Held sacred in Africa and Madagascar, the baobab -- stubby branches on top of a massive trunk so it's sometimes said God planted it upside down -- was sown in 1907 from a Tanzanian seed at the Department of Agriculture's introduction station on Old Cutler Road.

In 1965, the tree went over in Hurricane Cleo. When the USDA decided to get rid of it, the late Catherine Sweeney, who by then owned The Kampong in Coconut Grove, hired a 70-foot flatbed truck and transplanted it to her grounds, said director Larry Schokman.

"The ashes of people and pets have been scattered beneath it," Schokman said, "so we can't leave it down.''

The baobab joins 46 other Kampong trees that Schokman had propped up after Katrina, including the 100-foot kapok and a Bo tree (Ficus religiosa) that came from the Schwedegon Temple in Rangoon, Burma. Five other trees knocked over in Wilma have been propped up as well.

Many of South Florida's historic trees and palms were tossed and dismembered by a hurricane thought to be only moderately powerful by the time it came ashore. Yet, the storm's wake is witness to tree triage in gardens around South Florida. In some cases, the task is more than daunting:

An adolescent talipot palm, which one day will sport the largest leaves in the plant kingdom, is awaiting a backhoe in order to be propped upright at Fairchild Tropical Garden.

The famous banyan at Pinecrest Gardens has had half its mass shoved to the ground, along with the spectacular sausage tree. The banyan was felled by Wilma just four days after it was trimmed following a bruising from Katrina.

Some gardens remain unreachable, from Flamingo Gardens in Davie to the Fruit & Spice Park in the Redland. At the Montgomery Botanical Center in Coral Gables, workers have been cleaning up with chainsaws. Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden on Stock Island is closed, but an answering machine is taking names and numbers of people who want to volunteer or find out more about helping: 1-305-296-1504. Caribbean Gardens is close duntil further notice and McKee Botanical Garden sought volunteers for a cleanup operation.

Fairchild volunteers were working to clear parts of the 83 acres churned up by Hurricane Wilma. The rain forest lost major canopy trees, and the McLamore Arboretum was badly hit.

Oil palms, with fronds as big and thick as kayaks, were left one-sided by Wilma's southwestern winds, though the nearby Whitman Tropical Fruit Pavilion and the glass Conservatory are intact. The venerable Sapodilla, an iconic survivor by the garden cafe, lost limbs but remains upright.

''The biggest surprise was that about 30 Thrinax radiata [native thatch palms] crashed,'' said chief of horticulture Mike Davenport.

The older Ficus species in the garden were exposed in Hurricane Katrina and hit by Hurricane Wilma. ''In Katrina, trees that came down were Hurricane Andrew survivors that were unbalanced or had some disease. In this storm, healthy trees came down because there was nothing to block them,'' he said.

No ''garden closed'' sign is needed at the University of Miami's Gifford Arboretum: Few trees are left standing. Large Ficus trees still held up bare limbs, some flowers remained on firebush shrubs, and standing are the Lignum vitae, the black Sapote and mahoganies

Pinecrest Gardens is now down to about 10 of the original cypress trees that once populated the natural drainage area where Parrot Jungle was built in the 1930s. Five cypress were 2005 hurricane victims.

Before Wilma, horticulturist Craig Morell had secured 2,000 orchids in trees around the grounds. Flamingo Lake is being aerated daily by a portable pump. Still, 347 tilapia were killed in one pond choked with vegetation.

Because the one-time tourist attraction was meant to be a ''jungle,'' the massive plantings were overgrown and even after two hurricanes this year, the cypress trees just now are becoming visible. A corridor of microbursts hit one part of the gardens, Morrel said, with side-by-side trees and bamboo stands ripped in opposite directions, eggbeater style.

Morrel estimates Wilma clean-up costs at $75,000, including $10,000 to $12,000 for restanding trees "If we can get someone here to do it before they die.''


More about the damage in Mexico is at 

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