JACKSONVILLE — Nearly seven months have passed since Jacksonville was struck by a tornado that drastically altered the city’s landscape, but a group of residents plans to bring back some of the beauty through trees.
“This area and the neighborhoods in it were known for our beautiful trees,” said Sherry Blanton, who is leading the charge to “re-tree” the city. “I came up with this because I wanted to do something to help Jacksonville to be what it used to be.”
An effort dubbed “Re-tree Jacksonville” is the brainchild of Blanton, a resident of the city for more than 40 years. Thanks to that effort, the Calhoun County Extension Office, the Jacksonville Tree Commission and a host of other contributors, more than 1,200 young trees have been donated and grown to give to those in Jacksonville who lost trees in the storm.
The trees are for Jacksonville residents, who get up to five each. They will be available for pickup from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 20 at the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville. The only requirement for picking up a tree is providing an address within the city.
Blanton said more than 600 tons of tree debris had to be removed after numerous properties east of Alabama 21 were ravaged by the tornado and strong winds in March. Rusty Poole, who has lived on 11th Street in Jacksonville for nearly two decades, said he hadn’t seen destruction like this here before. Along with the numerous trees he lost, Poole’s backyard workshop was swept into his neighbor’s backyard.
“I had a young magnolia tree that was snapped in half,” he said. “I lost two dogwoods, which I loved; it was a great disappointment when I saw that they were destroyed. It looked like a big hand came down and crushed them. It reminded me of when you mess someone’s hair up with your hand.”
Poole said he always looked forward to his dogwoods blooming in the spring, which he said was a pleasant sight. His cat was also a fan of the dogwoods.
“He used to love climbing the tree and chasing squirrels in them, but now he can’t,” Poole said. “It was close enough to the house that he could hop onto the roof. I used to love chasing him up into the tree and watching him chase them.”
Poole said his street was lucky because their power was only out for 47 hours, whereas others went without power for days longer. The power and phone lines have been restored, but some homes are still uninhabitable, while even more have been stripped of their flora.
After the tornado, Blanton said, she and her husband took a walk to survey the neighborhood, but didn’t make it three blocks before the drastically altered scenery overwhelmed them with grief.
“We looked at the landscape and couldn’t believe how different it was,” she said. “I lost two pines, with around 200 rings on them.”
Blanton says the loss of so many trees is more than just an emotional concern, but an economic one as well. The loss of these trees will likely raise the cost to regulate the temperature of homes, due to the loss of shade and protection from wind.
When Blanton had the idea to bring trees back to Jacksonville, she knew she’d need professional help for a job of such magnitude. She says she reached out to Hayes Jackson, an agent at the Calhoun County Extension Office, who was immediately on board with the plan.
“I’ve been working with the residents of Jacksonville,” Jackson said. “I’m an extension agent, so I’m familiar with planning and proper placement of these trees.”
Jackson has picked a mixture of 26 native and exotic tree species, which will all thrive in this climate. Some of the species available include red maple, Japanese maple, bald cypress, dogwood, pawpaw, Japanese Cornel dogwood and dawn redwood.
“A lot of times we don’t plant trees for ourselves, but for future generations,” he said. “I tried to mix, to get some trees that grow fast, so people can get some quick shade trees and some that take longer to reach maturation. We have some that are smaller trees because some people are a little wary of having tall trees around their house after they’ve fallen.”
Residents seeking fast-growing trees might choose the dawn redwood, crepe myrtle and Savannah holly, as they will grow multiple feet in a year. Some trees with a considerably slower maturation rate include the river birch, overcup oak and dogwood. Typically, each of these trees grows no more than a foot annually.
The trees Blanton’s effort has collected are just beyond the sapling stage, according to the extension office agent. They’re currently a couple of years old, and are planted in two-gallon pots. Some of the seedlings were acquired from a nursery on the West Coast, while some were grown in Calhoun County.
The late October giveaway date turned out to be a fortuitous time to plant a tree in central Alabama, according to Jackson. He stressed that the best time to plant trees in central Alabama is during the winter season — November through February.
Jackson also advises gardeners to know the overall height and spread a tree will reach before planting. Without proper planning, a tree could grow too closely to power lines, homes or the street, causing potentially expensive issues in the future.
In the aftermath of the March storm, many north Jacksonville residents say they didn’t recognize their community as it had been scalped of many natural landmarks, according to Blanton. She said she hopes the gift of free trees will be invaluable to Jacksonville.
“I see this as a gift of healing and hope for Jacksonville that we will be back,” she said.