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Town's Christmas tree falls victim to drought

The southern red cedar in Memorial Park was planted in 1980 by members of the Lutz-Land O'Lakes Woman's Club and decorated with lights every year.

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000


LUTZ -- The drought may not have silenced the July Fourth fireworks, but it has killed Lutz's Christmas tree.

The 20-year-old southern red cedar, which had been strung with lights every Christmas, has turned from a pale green to a toasty brown.

"It's dead as a doornail and ugly too," said Auralee Buckingham, who organizes Lutz's holiday events and decorated the tree every December.

But she pledged that Lutz won't go without a Christmas tree this year. After July Fourth, Buckingham said, "I'm going to find the biggest tree I can find, a Christmas tree, and put it back up."

Such cedars have been dying all over the area, gardeners and horticulturists said.

"I had until this year considered the cedar one of the most drought-hardy plants," said Scott Radford, owner of Hollie's Farm and Garden, a nursery in Lutz. "But this is just an extreme drought."

While trees such as pines have tap roots that extend deep into the ground the cedar has a fine, hairy root system that spreads mostly horizontally across the top of the soil, Radford said. That may have been a disadvantage as the water table fell.

"They're probably the most frequent item that I have seen dead in town," he said.

The tree was planted about 1980 by Nan Groll and Phyllis Hoedt, who were leaders in the Lutz-Land O'Lakes Woman's Club.

Mrs. Groll, who lives in Nashville now, recalled that the tree was about three feet tall then. She planted it as a community service, without Christmas in mind, she said.

"I think we paid $24.95 for it," Mrs. Groll said. "It was just something I wanted to do. That was probably all I could afford to spend at the time."

As the tree grew, it emerged as the only evergreen in Memorial Park, which is dominated by oaks and palms. So planners of Lutz's annual Christmas pageant crowned the cedar the Christmas tree. The ceremonial lighting of the tree became one of the highlights of the pageant, and the only specific responsibility bestowed all year on Lutz's guv'na.

Today, the dead tree is more than 25 feet tall.

"I just bought $200 worth of lights," Buckingham said. "That's what really ticks me."

She said she had noticed problems with the tree in December, when she and fellow club member Aniko Solomonson trimmed some dying branches.

"That tree already was suffering for some reason."

JoAnn Hoffman, master gardener with the Hillsborough County extension service, noted that the drought set in shortly after the El Nino rains ended. "We've been in a drought for two years."

"That's too bad," Mrs. Groll said, when she heard about the tree from a reporter. "I didn't realize things were that bad down there. It's sad to see something that was there for so long go away."

* * *

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 or coats@sptimes.com.

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