Great Florida Trees and When to See Them

Florida’s got trees, y’all. Big ones, small ones, and even some of the largest and oldest of their species worldwide. (Well, there’s one less of these since some meth addicts tried to start a fire *inside* The Senator–the world’s oldest cypress tree.)

Florida’s got trees. Unfortunately, it’s also afflicted with Floridians.

The Senator was 3,500 years old; the oldest cypress, and the fifth oldest tree in the world. Florida Woman was chilly, so Florida Woman started a fire inside its hollowed center.

We Got Diversity

Florida is home to more tree species than any other state in the continental U.S.; roughly half of the 650 species native to North America can be found across our peninsula and panhandle. Why is Florida such a paradise for trees? Well, mostly for the same reasons it’s such a wonderful place for all of our invasive species.

While most Floridians know our seasons to be fairly constant (Summer and hot Summer), our unique environment enables a diversity of species that is unmatched by any of the other less interesting states. South Florida and the Keys host tropical species at the northern end of their range, reaching up from the West Indies and South America. North Florida and the panhandle welcome the snowbirdstrees—the temperate species that range south to find the southernmost limits of their distribution.

We Got Size

Florida is home to more National Champions than any other state, with 106. National Champion tress are the largest known individuals of their species in the U.S.; they are cataloged on the American Forests National Register of Champion Trees.

Florida also has its own State Champion Register, which was established in 1975. In fact, the largest known longleaf pine in the state was just identified by the North Florida Land Trust in Marion County!

Miami Dade County leads the state with 23 National Champions and 39 Florida Champions. Alachua county comes in close second, with six National Champions and 19 Florida Champions. Controversially not included in Alachua’s tally is Tim Treebow, a 7.5-foot tall Tebow sculpture carved into a dead oak tree in front Gainesville’s Ballyhoo Grill. That’s a clear National Champion in my book. Go Gators.

The artist with his creation. Bask in it.

We Floridians, being so blessed with tree diversity and ubiquity, often forget to stop and smell the flowering ones. In this post, I highlight a few of the top trees or treecosystems in the state—some are the largest of their kind, others have unique life histories, and unfortunately some are all that’s left of species nearing extinction.

All of these trees are worth experiencing.

Rather than the “listed in no particular order” format, this list is time-sensitive. At the top of the list are the tress or ecosystems that are so old or so threatened that you may only have a few years to see them. I’ll allow you to procrastinate once you get to the middle of the list.

The Top Florida Tree Experiences

Torreya State Park

This park protects one of the rarest conifers in North America, the Florida Torreya (Torreya taxifolia), which is one of the oldest known tree species on earth. Now, it grows exclusively on the banks of the Apalachicola River.

Locals may know it as stinking cedar (or Florida Nutmeg…or gopherwood) for the strong odor it gives off when its cut or bruised. (Floridians have a habit of naming our unique residents after their offensive scents.)

An estimated 600,000 trees occupied the Apalachicola River Valley in the 1800s; less than 200 survive today. Half of the remaining population exists within the boundaries of the park.

The Council Oak

The Council Oak sits at the intersection of Stirling Road and 441 in Hollywood, and is surrounded by a casino parking lot. Prior to the establishment of a unified tribal government, the Council Oak was a gathering place for Seminoles to discuss important matters. From The Seminole Tribune:

“It was here in the 1950s, beneath these same shady branches, concerned and determined Seminoles would gather, regularly, to argue, discuss and ruminate on the creation of a unified Tribe. These were the sons and daughters of the last generation of Seminole Indians to live in the Florida outback, chased into hiding in the mid-1800s. Historians say the Council Oak, as the tree became known, was probably standing here in 1828, when Seminoles first settled the area, then known as Big City Island.”

“In 1957, Florida Seminole Indians including Bill Osceola, Billy Osceola, Betty Mae Jumper and Laura Mae Osceola, approached Glenn Emmons, Commissioner of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior. They wanted control of their own affairs. Emmons sent Sioux Indian Reginald “Rex” Quinn, from the Tribal government branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to assess the request and assist the Seminoles in drafting the constitution and bylaws necessary for self-government. Quinn, who worked with Seminole leaders on all three reservations (Dania, Big Cypress and Brighton), came to the consensus that Seminoles were in favor of self-government.”

Under this live oak tree, in August 1957, the framers of the Seminole Constitution established the tribe. Let that sink in for a moment; this oak tree hosted the establishment of a sovereign nation within the boundaries of the United States. Can there exist a tree that has had a greater impact on Florida’s history?

council oak
The Council Oak, from The Seminole Tribune (February 20, 2013)

The Council Oak was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, and to the Seminole’s Tribal Register of Historic Places in 2018. The tree was eligible for listing as a property associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of history. The Tribe actively works with arborists to ensure the health and safety of the Council Oak and surrounding landscape.

The Everglades

There’s just too much to say about the Everglades. Too much to see, too much to do, too much we still need to save. But for this post, I’m focusing on the Everglades’ mangrove forests. Florida is home to the red, white, and black mangrove, and all three species are found in The Everglades, which contains the largest mangrove forest in North America.

Mangrove forests and their complex network of exposed roots help stabilize shorelines and prevent erosion. They protect inland areas from strong winds, rising tides, flooding and storm surges, they cycle nutrients and chemicals elevating water quality, and act as critical habitat for many animals.

Half of the old growth mangrove forests have disappeared in the last 50 years, so naturally, they are protected in Florida. In fact, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection just fined a developer for illegally cutting 500 mangroves.

The fine was $6,000.

These poor people may never recover, but at least our brave state is doing everything it can to protect a vital network of defense against hurricanes, climate change, and sea level rise (I assure you these things are real).

Tall Timbers

Tall Timbers has it all: a longleaf pine ecology research station, the premier quail research program in the south, the Wildland Fire Science and home of the Prescribed Fire Science Consortium, the Stoddard Bird Lab, and the historic Dixie Plantation!

As a nationally accredited conservation land trust, Tall Timbers protects a wiregrass and longleaf pine habitat that was once the largest ecosystem in North America! It covered most of the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains from Virginia to east Texas and into peninsular Florida. Ninety-seven percent of this ecosystem’s acreage has been lost to urbanization, timber harvest, and fire suppression.

This fragile and fire-dependent ecosystem is now a rare sight, and Tall Timbers is a fantastic place to experience it. It’s also a great place to go birding, and you may see rare species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and brown-headed nuthatch.

Fairchild Oak, Bulow Creek State Park

fairchild oak
Come closer. The Fairchild Oak will keep your secrets.

Bulow Creek State Park is one of the largest remaining stands of southern live oak forest in Florida, and the Fairchild Oak is one of the largest live oaks in the South. It survived the destruction of the Bulow Planation during the Second Seminole War in 1836, and even witnessed a few mysterious deaths. Creepy.

As an honorable mention for all my Panhandlers, the Lichgate on High Road in Tallahassee has a spectacular live oak tree with its own unique history featuring less death.

Ocala National Forest

President Teddy Roosevelt knew a good scrub when he saw one. That’s why, in November 1908, he established the Ocala National Forest, thus preserving 165,000 acres of sand pine scrub. 112 years later, various land purchases have increased that number to 382,318 acres. As the world’s largest contiguous sand pine scrub forest, it truly is The Big Scrub.

This uniqosystem was once a chain of islands before the sea levels dropped around 25 million years ago. Now, instead of water, scrub islands are surrounded by other forest types like pine flatwoods and oak hammocks. The scrub support a variety of species, some of which are found only in Florida!

Some sandy scrub habitat.

The Ocala National Forest boasts a National Champion Loblolly Bay and Chapman Oak, but the sand pines aren’t majestic or spectacularly large; in the scrub, the sand pine motto is “Grow fast, die young.” The Big Scrub is definitely the most hardcore of all of Florida’s environments.

Speaking of hardcore, let’s talk about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Her Pulitzer Prize winning novel and monumental piece of great Florida fiction, The Yearling, is based on the Long family, who homesteaded on Pat’s Island in the Big Scrub. Be sure to hike The Yearling Trail while you’re there and, you’ll pass by historic several homestead sites, the Long family cemetery, and other areas featured in the book and subsequent film.

Wray Botanical Collection at Flamingo Gardens

Flamingo Gardens has the largest collection of Florida Champion Trees in the state, with twenty in total. Their collection also boasts the largest tree in Florida’s Champion Tree register—a Cluster Fig that clocks in at 102 feet high and 54 feet 1 inch wide, with a crown span of 95 feet.

The park is in my hometown of Davie, so I spent a lot of time there as a kid. It’s a great place to see a wide variety of Florida’s wildlife that are either being rehabilitated, or cannot be released and are living out their lives at the park. Stop in the historic Wray House to get a glimpse of what life was like for rich folks in South Florida during the 1930’s.

Do you have great trees that aren’t on this list? COMPLAIN IN THE COMMENTS!

Tagged with: