Gary Keever had to keep going back for more sugar.
“We started off by mixing up 40 liters, 20 liters in each of the two containers, and thought we’d be lucky to get the trees to take up that volume,” Keever, an endowed professor in Auburn’s Department of Horticulture, said of the carbohydrate cocktail brewed for use in an experimental sugar solution IV the Toomer’s Task Force, aided by a team of visiting arborists, used yesterday to artificially feed the Toomer’s Oaks. The iconic oaks were poisoned with the herbicide Spike 80DF more than a year ago.
They started with the College Street tree. They drilled holes. They placed ports. They cranked up the generator and they started pumping. And they didn’t stop for three and a half hours.
“It (the oak) took up 100 liters, or a little over 25 gallons,” Keever said. “I could not believe it.”
They repeated the process on the oak closest to Magnolia Ave. It guzzled close to 20 gallons.
“I had to come back here to Funchess (Funchess Hall, which houses departments in AU’s College of Agriculture) three times to make up more solution,” Keever said. “The lab was like, ‘You’re back again?’ They were surprised.”
So was Keever—surprised and pleased. Because for the trees to readily absorb that volume of the solution meant that the new flush of foliage that got so much attention two weeks ago is good for more than just a feel-good photo op—it means that the foliage is actually doing its job, at least for the time being.
“These leaves are certainly greener than they were two weeks ago and there are more of them and they’re not showing signs of herbicide damage yet. This uptake is driven by transpiration and wouldn’t be occurring without the foliage on there, so the normal, healthy functioning of the foliage is a good sign.”
Last year, the spring, sumer, and fall flushes of growth on the oaks were progressively weaker due to decreasing amounts of the available carbohydrates required for tissue formation. Spike 80 DF inhibits photosynthesis, which is necessary for sugar production, and essentially starves a tree.
“If that herbicide is still present, then at some point we’ll see some of the same signs of poisoning as last year,” Keever said. “But these sugars, these carbohydrates, have kind of set back the clock a little bit in terms of the trees’ ability to do battle with the herbicide. And it is a battle, it is a war. The herbicide depletes the trees’ stored reserves. But this (the sugar treatment) shifts the balance in favor of the trees by replenishing food reserves.”
Shifts the balance? Yes, at least to a certain extent, but Keever urges against reading too much into metaphors or trite sound bites like “cautiously optimistic,” a quote he (still) won’t give. Not yet.
Last week, a member of the Committee to Determine the Future of Rolling Toomer’s Corner, which in January recommended that one or more large trees replace the Toomer’s Oaks should they die, and for a temporary solution to be implemented in order to continue Auburn’s rolling tradition, called Keever after hearing rumors that the oaks would live to ask if the committee should stop looking into “attractive intersection structures.” Keever’s response: “Absolutely not.”
“I find all of this encouraging, but I’m certainly not ready to stand up on my soapbox and say they’ll survive.”
Keever is quick to point out that it wasn’t until late March and into April of last year that the oaks began showing signs of herbicide damage. “Let’s see what happens when things really start to heat up.”
“But it’s easy to get excited when there are positive things going on with this. Back in the fall, it was really rather depressing, but right now there’s something positive to say.”
More on the the Toomer’s oaks: Here’s what the type of tree that might replace Toomer’s Corner looks like / Wire system being considered as temporary solution for rolling Toomer’s / On the feasibility of a Toomer’s Corner transplant / Toomer’s Corner rollings didn’t start with Punt, Bama, Punt, says History / Did Auburn students celebrate Bear Bryant’s death by rolling Toomer’s Corner
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