Back in March, a controversy sprouted in the oddest of places – someone was spotted taking soil borings from the ground in a small, nondescript park near downtown Orlando called Constitution Green. The park, a patch of grass with a handful of massive old oak trees, is owned by a private organization called Mabel Groves Ltd. The city has leased and maintained the property as a park, even though it isn't zoned for recreational use like other parks but as vacant commercial property. When the city first started leasing the plot in the 1980s, the lease was set for 10 years at a time; but in 2005, the last 10-year lease ended and according to documents obtained from the city, it's been on a month-to-month lease ever since. Which is why those soil borings troubled some locals in the know, including City Commissioner Patty Sheehan. According to Sheehan, the family that owns the park was thinking about selling or developing it, which could potentially mean curtains for the old oaks that have been there for decades. At least one of those trees, people pointed out, has been at that location for nearly 200 years, and is on the city's list of "significant trees."
People held rallies at the park, Critical Mass held a bike ride highlighting the significant trees in Orlando and even Mayor Buddy Dyer made a statement on the city's website that, although the property owners had a right to develop the property, "they should not be allowed to remove a historic tree."
On the sidelines and in the background, some people asked: What makes these trees so special when so many other trees and greenspaces are plowed under, plundered for development or simply neglected? Take, for instance, Lake Lorna Doone Park on Orlando's west side, which political activist Doug Head points out has been languishing in the shadow of the Citrus Bowl for years. The park's lake (which was recently cleaned up by volunteers from Eco Action) has been choked with algae, weeds and trash. Part of the park has been used for parking for Citrus Bowl events. Nobody shakes a stick about the trees over there.
Then there are all the trees that are going to be collateral damage due to construction on the I-4 Ultimate Project, which will expand the highway from Orlando through Altamonte Springs. And the fact that in Mount Dora, somebody made the genius decision to take out the gorgeous mature oak trees lining the sidewalks and replace them with spindly palms that are nowhere near as majestic and certainly don't provide much in the way of protective canopy. Where's the love for those trees?
What makes some trees "significant," while others are disposable? That's not an easy question to answer. At the moment, the city map of significant trees contains seven locations (not all of the trees on the list are singular plants – a few of the entries cover all of the same types of trees in a designated area or park). We asked city spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser to tell us how they were chosen as significant and what the process was for getting a tree on that map. As it turns out, there's really no process and those trees don't have any specific significance at all, except that they're nice, conveniently located and easy to find.
"The map you're referring to was a marketing effort to expose people to some of Orlando's large, old or majestic trees," Lafser says. "The list was compiled from no specific formula, but more of trees that we knew were accessible, visible, easy to get to all at once, and that we thought people might be interested in seeing."
The city of Orlando does have a tree-protection ordinance, which makes it possible to designate any tree that's 30 inches in diameter or larger as a historic tree. This demarcation could potentially protect them from being taken down for development. It doesn't mean the map of significant trees will branch out, but you never know when the next push for tree-hugging might occur.
We took a tour of the trees designated as significant by Orlando, and we reviewed each stop on a 5-star scale to determine just how special we think they are. Although the city may not have selected them for any specific reasons, we are (as they say) big saps who fell hard for our city's longstanding oaks, pines and camphors (even if camphor is an invasive plant). Here's our take on the city's significant arboreal wonders.
1. Mayor Carl T. Langford Park, 100 Rosearden Drive
While oak trees litter streets, cloud out yards and are a commonplace, almost unspecial, sight in this city, the dense canvas of oaks at Langford Park – live oak, laurel, shumard and swamp chestnut – transforms the norm with its surreal enclosed environment. Upon entering, you drop into psychedelic lushness like you wandered into Bio-Dome. The trees shroud out the sky, except for shrubby branches that grow sparse at their furthest extent. Individual leaves take shape in kindergarten-ish designs, but clashing against each other overhead, there's ample intrigue in interwoven limbs. 4 stars
2. Longleaf pine trees at H.H. Dickson Azalea Park, 100 Rosearden Drive
Look up! If you're trying to locate Dickson Azalea's contribution to the significant trees map, head for the corner of Washington and Rosearden, outside the park but near the sign, and put your head alllll the way back. (They're the tallest trees in the park and easier to spot from the sidewalk than from inside it.) Dickson Azalea may be the most enchanting park in Orlando, all hidden in a low mossy dell with winding paths and a babbling brook, but their Pinus palustris is all about sky appeal. The longleafs are tall and skinny, scrubby gnarly trunks with bursts of needles spraying out just at the top. The spring-green fireworks go off 20 feet above this quiet greenspace designed by Mulford Foster and built by the Works Progress Administration in 1935. 5 stars
3. Constitution Green Park, 300 S. Summerlin Ave.
It seems unfair that the trees in this little greenspace have to compete with the trees in the other parks on this list – most of the other trees have beautifully landscaped city grounds against which to be all splendid and magnificent. Since Constitution Green Park isn't city-owned, though, it's sort of a plain park with nothing more than some grass and benches and then the trees. But in a way, that makes them even more awesome, because they're like the little surprise flowers that spring up from cracks in between the pavement – they thrive despite the fact that you hardly ever notice them and when you do take a closer look, you're all, "Wow – this tree sitting between these apartment buildings and busy roadways is kind of awesome." That's particularly true of the significant tree in question (the giant one in the middle of the park), which is so huge and old that its gigantic branches have drooped all the way to the ground ("recumbent," the city's map calls them). It also has what the city calls "crown adaptation" – a forcing of branch growth in an opposite direction due to "another tree on the opposite side." (Although we're not totally sure what happened to that other tree, because it just looks like one massive old oak tree to us – either somebody removed this tree's Siamese twin, or the tree that's there now consumed its sibling.) Anyway, if there were a tree in which fairies lived, or trees that could have a tree spirit, or a tree that could maybe be an imaginary descendent of a Game of Thrones weirwood tree, it would definitely be this tree. As significant trees go, this one is pretty fantastic. We're still not sure what the status is of the development of this park – the city tells us that the landlord has not yet terminated the city's lease on the park, so there are no specific development plans yet, and Sheehan's office told us there's no new information about the park's status. All we can say is that it would be a damn shame if we didn't find a way to preserve this tree. It's a good one. 5 stars
4. Lake Eola Park, 195 N. Rosalind Ave.
It's the large live oak trees that line Lake Eola's pathways that the city says are the significant ones here – but we must challenge the powers that be on that call. While the oaks are great, they don't hold a candle to, say, the Mayor or Big Tree Park's namesake. Also, when you're at Lake Eola, it's not the oaks that blow us away – it's the cypress trees. Have you seen those cypress trees? They're not all that big, but they're what make this park's treeline unique. Their weird nubby roots in the water provide roosting spots for waterfowl, the spaces in between the trees along the water's edge make perfect spots for swans to build nests, and they look pretty spectacular standing out in the lake against the city backdrop. The oaks are lovely, but we have to throw our lot in with the cypress. Honorable mention: Those two weird palm trees growing out of the overgrowth on the weird random island just off the lake's west shore. They're badass. 3 stars
(but mostly for the cypress)
5. Big Tree Park, 930 N. Thornton Ave.
From the street, the titular live oak at Big Tree Park looks pretty impressive, and at 400 years old – the oldest tree in Orlando – it should. But if you take a closer look, you'll see that time has taken its toll on this old gal. There's significant scarring on the back of the tree, an old burrow in its roots has been filled in with cement, and it looks like several limbs have been lopped off. This makes Big Tree appear to have a little bit of a lean in its swagger, exacerbated by the lone limb that reaches all the way to the ground. We appreciate that bit of rough, young charm coming from a seasoned veteran like Big Tree, but we also wish someone had taken a little better care of her. 3 stars
6: Allée of camphor trees, Harry P. Leu Gardens, 1920 N. Forest Ave. Some trees are like, “Gaze up at my towering majesty!” and some are like, “Climb in, get comfy, maybe bring a book and an apple.” Leu Gardens’ camphor trees are the latter sort. Head to the back of the park, past the rose garden and the citrus grove, and eventually you’ll come to a sidewalk lined in either direction with a row of fragrant Cinnamomum camphora, a non-native evergreen that’s generally deplored for displacing native plants. Ignore the camphors’ bad habits in the wild, though, and enjoy these split-trunked beauties – with their low forks, they look like the perfect climbing trees. Resist the urge, and instead Instagram your face off trying to capture the mossy trunks, clad in pantaloons of hairy resurrection ferns and surrounded by banks of peace lilies. 3 stars
7. The Mayor at Loch Haven Park, 900 E. Princeton St. The city’s official significant trees map lists the location of the Mayor as Loch Haven Park, but it’s actually on the south side of Princeton Street, on the grounds of the Mennello Museum. Once you catch a glimpse of it, you’ll understand its “significant” designation. Like a sprawling oaken octopus or a fairy’s circus tent, the massive limbs of the Mayor spread out and then down, creating a shaded cage that stirs up childhood memories of climbing. You’ll see plenty of youngsters running around the branches during Kids Fringe, which takes place in the Mennello’s sculpture gardens, and you’ll probably be jealous. 5 stars