Due to the spring weather, the two poisoned oaks at Toomer’s Corner are beginning to show signs of decay, but the task force charged with saving the trees continues to hold out hope for their recovery.
“I think we probably still feel the way we have been,” said Dr. Stephen Enloe, Assistant Professor of Agronomy and Soils at Auburn. “We’re super, super cautious about being too optimistic. The trees took a mega-dose of herbicide… but I still say we’re retaining a small chance of hope that these things can be saved.”
Over the weekend, workers were once again removing soil from the tree bed after tests revealed that Spike 80DF, the herbicide that Alabama fan Harvey Updyke Jr. claimed to have applied to the oaks the week after last year’s Iron Bowl, went deeper into the soil than originally thought.
“Soil removal that was begun Friday continues today in the bed adjoining Magnolia Street,” Auburn Professor of Horticulture Dr. Gary Keever, point person for the task force, said Monday. “After this is completed, the roots will be sprayed with a flow-able activated charcoal to bind any herbicide still in the bed and clean soil will be added, followed by a layer of pine bark mulch.”
Despite live oaks typically dropping older leaves in the spring rather than the fall, both Keever and Enloe said that the trees’ current yellowish color and increased loss of foliage are likely the result of Spike 80DF.
“The trees don’t look very good right now,” Enloe said, though he insisted that new is occurring.”The [public] panic will probably come back when you see a lot of leaves drop off, which is likely to start happening at this point, but they are flushing out new growth right now. That first flush of growth will tell us a lot as far as what to expect.”
A lift will be used on Friday to examine new shoot growth at the top of the trees’ canopies.
Enloe said the task force continues to consult with tree experts from around the country, most notably Dr. Kim Coder, a Professor of Tree Biology and Health Care at the University of Georgia. Coder, one of the world’s foremost experts in issues related to tree stress, assisted in the successful efforts to save the historic Treaty Oak in Austin, Texas, a live oak that in 1989 was vandalized with an application of the hardwood herbicide Velspar.
Jimmy Cobb, a member of the Toomer’s Task Force who lives in Auburn, and a regional sales rep for Dow Chemical, the company that manufactures Spike 80DF, asked for Coder’s help in late February at the North American Tree Conference in Savannah, Ga; Coder, who has also served as President of the International Society of Arboriculture, delivered the conference’s keynote address on the biological history of live oaks.
“I had heard the news [about the Toomer’s oaks] a week before,” Coder said. “It had made national news, but at the conference… is when it really came out. Everyone was talking about it.”
Due to scheduling conflicts, Coder said he likely won’t be able to make it to Auburn to examine the latest data on the oaks until mid-April, but actually deems the steps taken to preserve the trees before the poisoning to be their best chance for survival.
“[Spike 80DF] is very effective at being environmentally benign and very targeted and it’s kind of like when you have a very specialized weapon — it does what it’ supposed to do,” Coder said. “It does its job very effectively because that’s what we want it to do. I know there was a question as to when the chemical was actually placed [on the trees]. But in a vandalism case like this, there’s not an antidote that immediately comes to mind, but there are a number of things we can try. And those oaks were under the care of tree health experts beforehand and they were really invigorating the tress before this. That will give them the best chance of trying to get back, because they were already, in essence under a doctor’s care.”
“There’s always hope,” Coder said.
“I believe progress is being made by removing soil we know is contaminated,” he said. “Will the trees survive? I can’t answer that, but we will certainly have a clearer picture as the trees attempt to grow this spring and summer.”
Photo via The Opelika-Auburn News.
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