According to the Hurricane Ike Street Tree Survey Report, prepared by the Texas A&M Forest Service, the City of Galveston lost approximately 40,000 trees following Hurricane Ike in 2009. While the hurricane’s 110 mph wind no doubt led to the demise of many of these trees, the 15-foot storm surge dealt the heaviest blow, inundating the city with sea water that poisoned the island’s vegetation through soil salinization.
“The saddest thing to see were the oaks that were huge and beautiful specimens,” said Danny Carson, director of gardens at Moody Gardens Galveston. “Even with all the TLC they could get, they finally succumbed and died.”
Though Hurricane Ike has passed, numerous hurricane seasons still lie ahead for the Texas coast, in addition to climate change models predicting rising ocean levels and increasing instances of coastal flooding.
With this in mind, Stephen F. Austin State University’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture recently partnered with Moody Gardens to evaluate, introduce and promote a range of salt-tolerant trees, shrubs, groundcovers and herbaceous perennials for Galveston Island. Dr. David Creech, Regents Professor Emeritus and director of SFA Gardens, will serve as the project leader.
“This project is a first for Galveston Island in that it establishes a long-term platform for plant materials testing,” said Creech. He added that the three-year project is multifold and will incorporate the expertise of the college’s environmental, soil and spatial science specialists Dr. Kenneth Farrish, director, division of environmental science; Dr. Leon Young, professor and director of SFA Soil and Plant Tissue Testing Laboratory; Dr. David Kulhavy, Lacy Hunt Professor of Forestry; Dr. Daniel Unger, professor of remote sensing and spatial science; and Dr. Yanli Zhang, assistant professor of water resources and spatial science.
In addition to the collaboration among specialists in the Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture, Creech said the project necessitates partnerships across the southern coastal U.S. to obtain the most promising selections of salt-tolerant plants.
“A primary goal of this project is to focus on trees and shrubs that have never or rarely been tested before in Texas coastal landscapes,” Creech said.
As many of the species under investigation will be non-native, he said a full assessment of their invasive potential will be conducted prior to their promotion or release as salt-tolerant options for the Texas coast.
Since 2001, Creech also has worked with scientists at the Institute of Botany, Jiangsu Province and Chinese Academy of Sciences to augment China’s coastal windbreak forest with cultivars of salt-tolerant bald cypress from the U.S. These salt-tolerant native cultivars will be a component of the Moody Gardens study plot, located only 5 feet above sea level. Creech said he is eager to test their tolerance in an area so near the coastline.
“It’s salt tolerant (the cypress cultivar), but this is the edge of hell,” Creech said with a laugh. “This is pretty pushy as far as the extreme range of salinity and alkalinity that is out there.”
Creech added that soil salinity is not the only challenge. The salt in the coastal air collects on foliage and also creates issues with plant health.
The two-acre SFA research plot will be located on the northern edge of Moody Gardens’ property adjacent to Offatts Bayou. Creech explained that in addition to evaluation and study, the area is designed to serve as a revolving tree and shrub nursery for Moody Gardens.
“After three years, the best performing species can be dug or tree spaded and moved to the landscape at Moody Gardens, or sold or donated to various civic or other projects on Galveston Island,” he said.
Carson hopes to provide the salt-tolerant plants to residents and businesses in the area to beautify and diversify the city’s vegetation for human and non-human residents alike.
“Galveston is a major fly over for migratory birds and butterflies,” he said. “We would like to encourage our winged friends and our visitors to stop over and enjoy our sub-tropical paradise and every amenity that goes along with it.”
As the project progresses, a public outreach component also will be incorporated. In addition to interpretive signage educating the public on coastal health and the SFA research project, Creech envisions a regional conference that brings together scientists, technicians and state and federal coastal planners to address the concern of coastal degradation.
“This is a fun time, and we sincerely look forward to working with Dr. Creech and his team with continued support from the Moody Foundation,” said Carson.
Dr. David Creech, at right, Danny Carson, director of gardens at Moody Gardens Galveston,
and Priscilla Files of the Galveston Island Tree Conservancy discuss the project.
Photos courtesy of Dr. David Creech