Friday, November 11, 2016

Hurricane Matthew Reveals Weakness in Laurel Oaks

A grand laurel oak, 
damaged by Hurricane Matthew,
 and plant disease
As a lifelong Lowcountry resident my point of view as a naturalist and amateur weather observer combine here I as revisit the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Electing to ride out the storm on James Island at a waterfront property, I surely had a front row seat to gauge the storm intensity and to relay how a century old laurel oak was layed low, while surrounding live oaks swayed without much ado. The legacy of Hurricane Matthew across the larger Lowcountry landscape is similar with many laurel oaks damaged, while the live oaks live on.

Close Up of Tree Clinic equipment,
reveals true size of our grand oak
All tropical systems have different characteristics, which serve to define their legacy. Hurricane Matthew morphed into a Category One storm as it passed through the Lowcountry, leaving a large surge of saltwater in its wake along the coast.  A wide swath of territory stretching inland to I-95  saw ten inches of rain and winds strong enough to topple many large hardwood trees, particularly in swamps. No wide scale damage affected area pine trees, and the live oaks of the Lowcountry proved again they are deserving of their accolades, bending but not breaking.

But in the storm's aftermath, the Dennis family's grand laurel oak was dismasted and destroyed It’s long arms and natural cavities offered a home to a variety of Lowcountry wildlife. Despite the injuries, we wanted to inquire about saving the tree, and reached out to The Tree Clinic, specializing in sick and diseased trees. Paul Mulkey Jr. is a certified arborist and horticulturalist with The Tree Clinic, and when he came out to assess the venerable tree, we learned how laurel oaks are currently under stress across the Lowcountry. “Plant diseases are specific to their hosts, and laurel oaks are being attacked now by basil and root rot disease,” said Mulkey. “Phytophthora Cinnamomi is Latin for plant destroyer and this begins in the tree roots and slowly progresses up the tree.”

Our grand laurel oak was hardly recognizable
“This is a soil born water mold, and not a fungus, that is translocated into the tree,” said Mulkey. “What we are seeing is that during periods of wet weather such as over the past three years this process is sped up as trees utilize this natural resource. The inner wood vascular system becomes clogged with the disease and begins to decline and die, and the rate of healing for a large tree becomes less than the rate of decline.” In fact, when we cut into the large limbs already on the ground, some of the inner wood was soft, which also means it was no longer strong enough to bear the load of a far reaching limb. The ultimate prescription was removing the damaged laurel oak.
A young naturalist at work,
when our laurel oak was vibrant

It was the backside winds of the storm that caught many large hardwoods by their canopy, and toppling them over. All corners of the Lowcountry are reporting similar damage to bottomlands, and this will ultimately be the legacy for Hurricane Matthew. While many large oaks are already on the ground, this winter will see a fair amount of damaged limbs coming down, so outdoor enthusiasts should keep safety in mind and keep an eye to the sky while traversing the woodlands.

To view the entire feature article in the newspaper click on Charleston Mercury.

To view past blog entries on trees click on Dendrochronology - Pine Straw Baling - S.C. Tree Farm

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