Some believe 'hurricane haircuts' prevent accidents, but experts say it damages the trees.
Jim Waymer, Florida Today -- January 29, 2014
MELBOURNE, Fla. — Palm trees endure periodic hatchet jobs around Florida, making them liable to snap when days get stormy.
They resemble upside-down feather dusters, with tufts of meager fronds jutting up.
Others look worse, nearly frondless, like pineapples propped on sticks.
The reason for this overpruning, the so-called "hurricane haircuts" is simple: People think it makes for a cleaner, greener tree that needs trimming less often. And many, incorrectly, believe these extreme makeovers will keep fronds from blowing astray in storms.
But professional arborists say that's not so, and that overzealous pruning puts palms on a path to destruction.
"For some reason, it caught on," said Avalon Standstall, an arborist in Melbourne. "People started doing that without researching it."
He points to about 100 palms recently pruned in front of the Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts at Eastern Florida State College in Melbourne as an example of overtrimming.
Drastically trimmed palm trees around the Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne, Fla. (Photo: Craig Rubadoux, Florida Today)
"They could lose a lot of them by just falling over," Standstall said.
The King Center's trees were pruned to reduce the necessity for repeat trimming, to save money and for safety reasons, said John Glisch, a spokeman for the college.
"It reduces the possibility that branches could break off in winds and hit a student or a vehicle," Glisch said.
"No tree has ever been damaged or killed in pruning this way," he added.
But University of Florida experts say overpruning can shorten the tree's lifespan and sometimes lead to worse hazards.
The King Center's palms aren't alone. Problematic pruning runs rampant throughout Brevard County and elsewhere in Florida, with curbside mounds including both yellow and green trimmings, most prominently in the months leading up to hurricane season.
Healthy palms should resemble a big globe, arborists say. Even yellowing fronds that dangle down help provide palms with food.
"The only thing that's going to come off in wind is the dead leaves, they're very lightweight," said Tim Broschat, a professor of environmental horticulture at University of Florida in Gainesville.
But palms weakened by repeat overprunning can lose their entire top crown during storms, he said. "It'll snap off and kill the tree, and when it comes down it will cause greater damage," Broschat said.
Palms that have crownshafts — a region of smooth, usually green, tightly clasping leaf bases at the top of the trunk — rarely need pruning, as long as they're adequately fertilized.
Part of the problem is that most Florida palms suffer potassium or magnesium deficiencies, studies show, because fill soil used in developments lacks those two elements.Yellow or discolored fronds are the main symptom of the deficiency, but hacking those or anything other than the deadest of fronds removes a reservoir of nutrients the tree needs to sustain itself.
As a survival tactic, palms cannibalize older leaves.
Removing only brown fronds and flower stocks is fine, horticulturalists say. But cutting off the yellow fronds exposes the tree's "bud" to the cold, raising the potential of death in the winter and the same fate from tropical winds in the summer.
"If they keep doing it, it could set them up to lose their cold-hardiness," said Sally Scalera, a horticulture agent at the Brevard County Extension. "The best thing for them is to never remove anything but brown fronds."
In the city of Melbourne, businesses need a permit to trim more than 20 percent of a tree canopy. Residential property is exempt and owners can trim and remove trees without city approval.
But in unincorporated Brevard County, violators can face code enforcement fines if their trimming permanently disfigures a tree or renders it a public hazard.
Still, excess pruning persists — for practical but faulty reasons. Neighbors exert peer pressure on others to pretty-up their palms. Businesses worry about fronds dropping onto customers' cars. And untrained landscapers do what clients ask them.
"They want to see a cleaner look, now you're opening it up to insects and disease," Standstall said.