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For tree-planting mayor, an appropriate honor

A buttonwood tree, cloned from a giant specimen in Palm Beach County, commemorate's Mayor David Fischer's tree-growing projects.

By JOHN BALZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Mayor David Fischer was honored Friday as "St. Petersburg's Johnny Appleseed" by a group of Florida horticulturists who planted a giant buttonwood tree in his honor at Crescent Lake Park.

Members of the Champion Tree Project, an urban forestry initiative that clones the largest specimen of each tree type and plants the clones in urban areas, praised the mayor for his commitment to landscaping and tree-growing projects throughout the city. Fischer has planted more than 200,000 shrubs and 18,000 trees during his 10-year stint as mayor.

Fischer, who has morphed Herbert Hoover's slogan, "A chicken in every pot," into his own environmentally friendly mantra, "A tree on every lot," is optimistic that the tree would become a healthy addition in the park.

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago," Fischer said. "The second best time is today."

The tree planted in Fischer's honor is a 10-foot green buttonwood taken from an identical tree in Palm Beach. Buttonwoods grow only in Florida's coastal regions, and the record-breaking specimen in Palm Beach has a trunk circumference of more than 14 feet and a height of 51 feet.

Cloning a tree is not nearly as complicated or as challenging as cloning an animal. In this case, scientists pruned some branches from the parent tree and kept them moist in an Orlando mist house until the branches naturally sprouted roots. The hope is that the tree will live for hundreds of years, exactly like the one in Palm Beach.

But just because a giant tree is cloned and planted does not guarantee it will turn out identically. John Seiler, a professor of tree physiology and silviculture at Virginia Tech University, said a tree's growth is determined by its genetic makeup and by less predictable environmental factors like availability of water and protection from wind.

"You can have good genes from a gorgeous tree but if it's growing in the crack of a sidewalk, it ain't going to hack it," Seiler said.

Loren Westenberger, a local horticulturist with the Champion Tree Project, said the green buttonwood has about a "50-50" chance of becoming as big and living as long as its parent.

Fischer quickly sized up the location of the tree which is roughly 25 feet from 22nd Avenue N.

"The idea is to get as close to the curb as possible so that within five or six years it's branches will (hang) over the curb," Fischer said. "You try to get within 10 feet or less, so the edge of the sidewalk is really the perfect place."

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