Irma Struck Down South Florida's Tallest Tree

Irma Struck Down South Florida's Tallest Tree
Courtesy of Stan Wood/Flamingo Gardens
For South Florida nature enthusiasts, September has been a tragic month.

A little more than a week ago, Hurricane Irma slashed through South Florida, ripping trees from the ground and flooding parks by the acre. For 30 hours, the deadly Category 4 storm hammered the majority of South Florida’s natural attractions, dealing heavy damage to Zoo Miami, Jungle Island, Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Staff members and volunteers are working to repair those local gems, but it could be months before they're ready for visitors.

Some Irma damage can't be fixed, though. Flamingo Gardens in Broward County was cited by some sources as the home of South Florida's tallest tree — an 84-year-old korina, an exotic tree native to West Africa, that towered 134 feet above the ground. Irma, though, left the beloved tree in splinters on the forest floor.

"With this hurricane, there were many mini-tornadoes," says Stan Wood, Flamingo Gardens' executive director. "One hit the tree and twisted its trunk while the tree was still under the stress of the wind."

Originally, Flamingo Gardens was the brainchild of citrus grove farmer Floyd L. Wray and his wife. In 1933, the couple built the gardens — a massive 60-acre property in Davie — for the cultivation of tropical and subtropical fruit trees and shrubs. David Fairchild, a famed botanist, sent the Wrays many nonnative plants to be installed in the gardens’ prized arboretum. Within a couple of decades, Flamingo Gardens accumulated more than 3,000 species of plants, including orchids, yellow poincianas, Indian jujubes, and 200-year-old oaks.

Since then, tourists from across the nation have visited Flamingo Gardens to see the site’s natural wonders, none more awe-inspiring than the stately korina tree. Known for its 81.5-foot wide crown, its bare trunk, and its 18-foot-long buttressed roots, the deciduous korina, or Terminalia superba, hailed from tropical West Africa, where the trees have historically been harvested for timber and ayurvedic medicine.

"The korina tree has been a landmark for South Florida," says Laura Tooley, a former horticulturalist for Flamingo Gardens. "It's definitely the tallest tree in Broward County and likely the tallest tree in South Florida... It could be seen from [Interstate] 595 two miles away."

During its eight-decade lifetime, the korina had weathered more than Irma. Tooley recalls that in the late 1990s, the tree was shot through the trunk by an unknown driver passing by on Flamingo Road. "It was a small, .22-caliber bullet," she says. "We could see an entry and exit wound."

A decade later, nature tested the korina once again, this time with a bolt of lightning. "A six-foot strip of the tree blew out at 25 feet above ground," Tooley says. "It was a direct hit."
Courtesy of Stan Wood/Flamingo Gardens
Then, in 2005, Hurricane Wilma shook and twisted the tree, resulting in a vertical fissure up its trunk. In spite of the korina's hefty, 337-inch circumference, the crack weakened the tree, says Wood, who's a distant cousin of the Wrays.

Despite the fracture, over the next dozen years, the korina was promoted to the title of Florida Champion Tree, joining 23 others at Flamingo Gardens that had also been registered as the largest of their species in the state, Wood says. Created in 1975, the Florida Champion Tree registry allows both native and noninvasive naturalized tree species to be nominated.

Eventually, on February 25, 2016, Mark Torok of the Florida Forest Service gave the korina its final measurement. "It was 134 feet... the tallest of the Champion trees," he says. "Based on that, it was probably the tallest tree in this part of Florida."

Unfortunately, less than two years later, Irma took down the korina, along with another of the Flamingo Gardens' champion trees, an American oil palm.

"It's a huge loss," Wood says. "Our korina tree towered over the canopy, sculptural against the sky."
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Isabella Vi Gomes was a writing fellow at Miami New Times. She graduated from Princeton University in 2016. She then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.