GOING, GOING, GONE — the sand pine

Staff Writer
The Destin Log
Schnelloggers Lance Robinson, Brad Schneller and John Schneller.

Many of the sand pines that have been in our area way longer than me are turning brown and dying. Look up and around you and you will see how many of these native North American pines are in trouble. The sand pine, Pinus clausa, is seen as a scrubby tree capable of reaching 100 feet in height but more often seen around here as 15 - 40 feet tall.   

We rarely give this beautiful native evergreen much of a second look. It quietly stands in the woods among many of the numerous types of pines and grows about it business without much of a care. However, if you have these sand pines scattered around in your landscape, you may find this evergreen pine fighting for its life and losing. You can see evidence of this all along Highway 98 and at Henderson Beach.

It seems so sudden that the tree turns from a lovely green to a deathly brown. Sometimes within a month of entering this death spiral, the needles all turn brown, the tree begins to decay and lean earthward. A majestic sand pine close to me seems only days away from plummeting to the earth. I felt like I just looked up at this 40-foot beauty one day and it was suddenly and completely brown. It seemed to have happened so fast, how could I have missed its decline? This is happening all over the Destin area and I wondered why so many were in trouble. My first thought was an infestation of the dreaded pine bark beetle which is a disastrous disease for our pines. 

Anyone who takes the time to examine the fallen trees may find a powdery sawdust floating out of the tree. Surely a sign of the dreaded beetle. Wrong this time. No, it’s not the pine bark beetle that destroys the tree, but either the powder post or ambrosia beetle that follows the dictates of nature and enters the tree after it has died. 

As I understand it, the beetle excavates tunnels in the dead trees creating fungal gardens in which they live. The ambrosia beetle does not ingest the wood tissue; instead, the sawdust resulting from the excavation is pushed out of the hole. When we find this sawdust occurring the alarm bells go off. Are we sure it’s not the pine bark beetle?

The smartest person I know when it comes to horticulture advice is Sheila Dunning who is the University of Florida Commercial Horticulture Agent for Okaloosa County. I know she has been in Destin for an examination of our dying trees. I give her a call to verify what she has found and what is the explanation for why this has decided to happen now.

Sheila explains to me, “The extreme weather in the last two years has been the most extreme we have encountered in the last 20 years. The sand pine likes to live in a high and dry area and can withstand most any one time event. However, if you remember Destin back on April 29th and 30th, we had flooding conditions in most all the areas. Lots of standing water for days.  For 24 hours some parts of 98 were a foot deep in water. This past winter we experienced a prolonged freezing followed by water extremes.” 

The sand pines and even some of the laurel oaks threw up their branches and gave up the ghost. Too many extremes all too close together.

As I drive into Kelly Plantation I find the tree and removal service of Schnelloggers clearing the woods of dead and leaning pines. The company owned by brothers John and Brad Schneller is a culmination of their hard work, expertise and professionalism. For information and free estimates reach them at SchnelloggerTreeService.com. Earlier John spent seven years on the American Spirit party boat and Brad later joined in by working on the New Florida Girl. Owning a pickup truck and $5,000 they took a leap of faith into logging three years ago and Captain Jimmy Green came up with the catchy name Schnelloggers.  Schnell in German means fast. 

Today we are seeing the harsher side of the cycle of the forest. How easy it is to forget the beauty and fragility of life around us. Mother Nature has created a natural blow to the sand pines but life cycles go on and soon the empty spaces of the forest will be covered over with new invigorating growth.

Laura Hall is a longtime gardener and Destin resident. She explores area gardens and other local topics with her cavalier spaniel Annie. If you would like to show off your garden or be profiled in a future column, contact Laura at llhall4386@gmail.com.