Keeping up with Florida’s trees

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir

If you live in Florida, you probably already know that–other than Hawai’i–the state has more species of native trees than any other. My easy-to-use tree guide was published in 1956, so I can only consider it as a starting point since some of the nomenclature has changed since then.

Chinkapin Oak – Wikipedia photo

For example, the Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) used to be mixed up with the Pin Oak and the Chestnut Oak. Confusing matters more is the fact that one of the popular names for a Chinkapin still is “Chestnut Oak” even though the Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) is another species. Both are in the white oak group. There are so many popular names for Florida’s trees, shrubs and flowers that it’s often difficult to be sure what another author is talking about, especially when names change from region to region. Many of those names figure into the state’s old stories.

I refer to trees a lot in my novels, so I’m constantly reading about them, looking them up, verifying habitats, and enjoying myths and legends about them. Florida has a lot of species because of its diverse habitats. That’s a lot to keep up with. Fortunately, there are plenty of sites available on line. When I first started writing, one had to call or send a letter to get the kind of information that can not be found with a few good Google search words.

There are 50 species of oak in the eastern U.S. and that means you’ll find a lot of them in Florida in addition to Tupelo, Cypress, Slash Pines, Longleaf Pines, and Palm trees if you know where to look. Longleaf pines are a sad story because the original forests covered so much of the southeastern U.S. (a 140,000-mile swath through nine states). Naturally, most were logged off and the land was converted to other uses or replanted with the faster-growing Slash Pines. Not the forest service and others are trying to re-educate landowners about the value of Longleaf Pines, especially their important wiregrass habitats that are sustained by fires that clear the unwanted and choking invasive shrubs and trees out of the forests. See the Longleaf Alliance’s page.

Florida Yew – Floridata Plant Encyclopedia photo

The Torreya (also called Gopher Wood) and the Florida Yew are endangered and may well disappear except in managed arboretums. That’s sad to see. Look for those still around on the Garden of Eden trail near Bristol in the Florida Panhandle.

According to, Because the Torreya is one of America’s most endangered trees, a major effort is underway to save it. The Florida Park Service is working with the Atlanta Botanical Garden in a commendable effort to grow new Torreya trees. Using seed obtained from living trees, the agencies are growing seedlings that are being planted in the ravine habitat at Torreya State Park. Perhaps over time, the Torreya will once again thrive along the Apalachicola.”

Always nice to see people using native trees in their yards rather than stuff that really doesn’t belong there. (If you’re not sure and there’s no native nursery when you live, check this link and this link for names and pictures.)

In case you were going to ask: no, I don’t hug trees. Yet, I agree with Hermann Hesse, who wrote: “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”


My upcoming e-book short story “En Route to the Diddy-Wah-Diddy Landfill While the Dogwoods Were in Bloom” obviously focuses on the dogwood (Cornus florida), not to be confused with the imported Jamaica Dogwood that’s often called the Florida Fishfiddletree or Florida Fishpoison Tree.


Common Forest Trees of Florida – How being a packrat saves time

Looking at the pamphlet shown here, I can say that I have no idea how and when I got it, who scribbled on the cover, or even why the handy little pocket guide published in 1956 didn’t get buried in one of the numerous boxes of packrat stuff in the garage or attic.

Today, of course, a writer can Google just about anything. If he’s persistent, he can sort through all the hobby sites and find information he can count on. While writing my 2010 novel Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, I needed a handy reference to Florida’s trees. And there it was: right on my shelf less then six feet from my desk.

Published by the Florida Board of Forestry since 1925, I’m guessing I stole or borrowed or received this pocket guide while I was in the Boy Scouts in North Florida. The guide contrains black and white drawings of leaves, acorns and cones along with a descriptive text for each tree. This makes it easy for a hiker or a Boy Scout in Tate’s Hell Forest, the Apalachicola National Forest, or the swamps and estuaries along the Gulf Coast to identify what he’s looking at.

I grew up around Baldcypress, Chinkapin, Tupelo, Sweetbay Magnolia, Sassafras, Cabbage Palmetto, and Swamp Cottonwood trees. So, one would think I’d be a walking encyclopedia about their common attributes, the quick  kinds of details a writer needs when he writes a sentence such as “David stood beneath the ______ leaves of the ____-foot tall Swamp Popular.” But  no, I’ve been away from Florida too long to remember even the simplest details.

If only I had a photographic memory!

I include a lot of detail in my novels about mountains, trees, lakes and wildlife. That helps anchor the magic and fantasy in the story while making the location settings three dimensional. There’s a risk, though. If you make a mistake, somebody’s going to write you a letter or focus his review on the fact that while the hero of the novel was in a gun battle fighting for his life beneath a Chinkapin Oak, you forgot to mention that the three- to seven-inch leaves are toothed or that the trees are between fifty and eighty feet tall. Nice to have a quick reference book!

When it came down to quick reference materials, I found it much faster to grab this old pamphlet off the shelf than to search online. Sorry, Google, but I rather enjoy being a packrat and every once in a while I can actually justify it.