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Toomer’s Oaks poisoned by Bama fan; Ag professor says poisoner used specialized term for herbicide suggesting professional knowledge

One of several items placed at the foot of the Toomer's Oak trees by Auburn fans at an impromptu rally Wednesday night.

When Scott McElroy heard the news, he feared the worst.

“Auburn took this very seriously from the very beginning,” said McElroy, a professor in the Auburn College of Agriculture’s Department of Turf Management. “This was not a joke to anybody by any stretch of the imagination.”

On January 27, an Alabama fan calling himself “Al from Dadeville” called The Paul Finebaum Show and claimed that he had poisoned the 130 year old oak trees at Toomer’s Corner. The next morning, while a team from Auburn’s Landscape Services took soil samples, McElroy walked to Toomer’s from his office at Funchess Hall to conduct his own test using a photosynthesis meter than can detect herbicide treatment in a plant’s leaves.

“With any diagnostic procedure, whether you’re going in to detect cancer or poison in a tree, you do a quick screen first, and then you do more extensive testing,” McElroy said.

The results of McElroy’s quick screen came back negative. The results — for a variety of reasons — were wrong.

Auburn University today confirmed that the iconic oaks were, in fact, poisoned with a high dose of Spike 80DF, a herbicide governed by state agricultural laws and the Environmental Protection Agency.

A press release issued by the university said the trees have “little chance for survival.”

McElroy agrees.

“[The poison present in the trees] was well above the amount you would need to kill a tree,” McElroy said. “It was an excessive amount.”

The trees are currently being treated with activated carbon to prevent uptake of the herbicide into the trees’ roots.

McElroy was not at liberty to discuss some issues of the university’s investigation into the incident, but said that the poison was likely applied by a person with a working knowledge of herbicides.

“In the call, the guy said he used Spike 80DF. I didn’t hear that initially,” McElroy said. “He added the ’80DF’ part. That’s part of the formulation. That’s part of the chemistry of how that product was formulated. When you say ’80DF’, that means there’s 80 percent of active chemical in the formulated product.”

McElroy said that Spike, or tebuthiuron, is not readily available and is typically ordered from farmer’s cooperatives.

“It’s an expensive herbicide. It’s not cheap to go buy,” he said. “They don’t sell a lot of this. It’s not like you to Lowes of Home Depot to pick up. There’s not a lot of people who buy it… it’s an herbicide normally used by people who manage pasture fence rows and non-crop areas.”

McElroy said the variables of the trees’ less-than-ideal root environment might actually offer them a glimmer of hope by limiting the poison’s effect.

“It’s such an artificial system that the trees are growing in,” he said. “Think about how compacted that soil is and how restricted those roots are there… everything points to those trees not surviving, but we’re just in a wait and see mode.”

McElroy said that unless the situation changes, the trees should start showing serious signs of decay — browning and falling leaves — over the next month, but could take up to a year to die.

“Best case scenario the trees will be disfigured to the point they have to be removed,” McElroy later posted on his blog.

UPDATE: Watch our interview with “The Emotional Agronomist,” Stephen Enloe.

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