Originally published in Woods Reader Magazine, Summer, 2020
By Fred Mays
The Orlando, Florida, suburb of Winter Park dates back to 1887. Almost from the beginning it became a magnet for New Englanders seeking a warm winter. At the time the natural flora of the area was tall long leaf pines and citrus groves. Almost immediately the newcomers began cutting down the pines to use for lumber to build homes. The first oak trees in the town were planted as replacements. People wanted them as a reminder of their northern homes.
The town grew slowly in the first part of the last century, but the oak tree planting continued, lining city streets and park areas. It was after World War II that things really started to take off. The population grew to nearly 5,000 and the oak planting became a community obsession. Thousands of trees were planted on public and private property.
The tree of choice back then was the Laurel Oak, which is one of the fastest growing trees in the oak family and provides a large canopy.
As the trees grew, so did the town, and the need for roads to handle more traffic. In 1953 the city announced plans to cut down over 100 oak trees to make way for a street widening. A women’s tree movement from the Forest Hills Garden Club was quickly formed and moved to protect the trees. The women stood in the road to block bulldozers, some even chained themselves to the trees. One woman patrolled the street with a shotgun, threatening the work crews, who kept their distance.
This went on for days until the sheriff threatened to throw the women in jail. They relented but only after the city promised to form a tree conservation committee, and five of the women were named to the board. This committee was one of the first of its kind in the country.
Oak planting became synonymous with the city, and it gained a national reputation for it’s trees. Landscape architect and former city commissioner Tom McMackin says “when you think of Winter Park, you think of trees”. He attributes much of the city’s growth and aesthetic appeal to the trees. Property values soared.
The city’s Central Park in the downtown upscale shopping and restaurant area had hundreds of towering oaks, providing shade from the hot Florida sun. They added to the city’s quality of life as home to art festivals and music concerts.
Then in 2004 disaster struck. Three hurricanes crisscrossed central Florida in six weeks. Thousands of Laurel Oaks were felled by the winds, some crashing on houses and cars. It took a year to clear away the debris.
Streets that were once shrouded by the massive Laurel Oaks are now more exposed to the sun, changing the complexion of neighborhoods until the new trees fill in.
This house was once shaded by three Laurel Oaks in the front yard. Today it has a single young Live Oak and the house is open to the sun, with little shade.
“In my mind the property values went down” after the hurricanes, says McMackin. City Forester Josh Nye agrees, “the loss of trees was emotionally devastating” to city residents.
Even before the hurricanes Winter Park’s Forestry Department had been removing some of the towering Laurels that were coming to the end of their life span. Josh Nye says “the Laurel Oak has a life span of 40-60 years in an urban environment”. Many of the trees were older than that and posed a threat to public safety and property.
To replace the Laurels the city began planting Live Oaks, which are slower growers but can live hundreds of years. The tree canopy has changed in the city, with 60-foot Laurel’s and their massive shade producing branches being replaced by 15-foot Live Oaks, which offer minimal shade in their early years.
Today the city forestry budget totals nearly $2-million a year, and they are planting 500-600 new trees a year, about half of them Live Oaks. Nye says the biggest management challenge is the gradual replacement of the Laurel Oaks, which require constant pruning and removal as they go through “retrenchment”. This is the term for the ending of the tree’s life as it drops branches and canopy to preserve itself.
Today all oaks in Winter Park are protected by a city ordinance that requires a permit before they can be cut down, even on private property.
Both Nye and McMackin agree the trees bring a huge emotional value to the city residents. They can’t pin down an actual monetary value for a tree. One realtor told me a single mature oak tree adds $2,000-$3,000 to the value of a property. Nye doesn’t disagree. “Absolutely, trees add value” and says he’s heard that figure before.
So today Winter Park is in an evolution, replacing the Laurel Oaks with Live Oaks, Magnolias, Hollys, and even Crepe Myrtles, in an effort to diversify the tree canopy. Over 22-thousand trees are on city property, lining streets and shading parks. There are countless thousands more on private property. Winter Park, now a small city of over 30,000 people, is in no danger of losing its reputation as one of the tree capitals in the country.