Thursday, May 20, 2010

Send in the Clones

I’m a sucker for big trees. For an ecologically young environment, Florida has some big ones. Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) are the Redwoods of the southeast and the behemoth pictured below is one of the largest Live Oaks in Florida. Located in Lake Griffin State Park in Fruitland Park, FL, the tree stands over 83 feet tall and has a 131 foot crown spread.

The name Live Oak refers to the evergreen appearance of the tree. Each year the oak develops new leaves before shedding old growth, so it lacks the bare look of its northern deciduous cousins. This particular one was once a “Champion Tree” and considered the largest of its kind until others were discovered and displaced it. One of the reasons Live Oaks are successful is their ability to clone themselves. While the Live Oak maintains genetic diversity through cross-pollination and the subsequent dropping of a crop of acorns, they can also spread via clonal roots, also known as root suckering. Underground buds attached to the roots send a genetic copy of the primary tree to the surface and the shoot begins to grow. This can be in response to various forms of damage to the primary tree; clipping, storm damage, insect damage, etc., or it is simply a way for the primary tree to compete with other forms of vegetation growing in the understory.

Live Oaks are capable of enduring hurricanes, tolerant of salt-spray and are relatively disease free – attributes which provide the opportunity to grow for centuries. It’s difficult to tell how old this particular tree is since they won’t let me cut it down and count the annual rings, but park staff suggest it’s anywhere between 250-350 years old.

Measuring the circumference was a bit easier. I had to send in my clones to measure the distance around the base of the tree. Assuming each of my clones stands 5’9” and it took six of us to wrap around the tree, that’s a circumference of 34 feet and nearly 11 feet in diameter. Now if I can just get one of my clones to write my columns for me.

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