Planting Seeds

When most people think of Florida, they probably don’t think about trees. But the state is home to 14.5 million acres of forests comprising almost half the land area. Efforts to conserve Florida’s many trees date back to the late 1800s. At that time, interest in tree planting and protection spread across the United States with the creation of Arbor Day in Nebraska in 1872 and the founding of the American Forestry Association in 1875. In Florida, Ellen Call Long of Tallahassee stands out as one of the earliest advocates for tree conservation. Her interest in agriculture and ecology helped lead the way in Florida’s involvement in the conservation movement.

Portrait of Ellen Call Long in Tallahassee, Florida (1880s).

Ellen Call Long was born in 1825 at the Grove (Call-Collins House) in Florida’s capital city. Although she lived during a time when women had very little direct political influence, Long was able to exert some influence over local political leaders. Because her father, Richard Keith Call, served twice as Florida’s territorial governor (1836-39 and 1841-44), Long used her political connections to steer Florida towards forest conservation.

With the help of Florida’s Governor Edward A. Perry, she was able to bring Florida into the national conversation about tree conservation in the mid-1880s. Many states at this time were becoming increasingly aware of how tree destruction negatively affected people and the environment. A lumber shortage in the United States would have had devastating economic consequences, but the harvesting of timber nearly decimated the tree population in the Northeast and Midwest. Long did not want this to happen to her beloved state, so she found a way to get involved in the conservation movement.

Lumber classification guidelines adopted by the Pensacola Timber & Lumber Exchange in 1873. Florida’s lumber industry dates back to the 1830s. State Library of Florida, Florida Collection, BR0029.

Her fascination with the natural world began two decades prior, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Long took an interest in silkworm cultivation as a way for women to earn an income while their male relatives were fighting in the war. Her enthusiasm for silkworm cultivation continued throughout her life —  a silk U.S. flag made from silkworms cultivated by Long was presented to Governor Perry at his inauguration in 1885.

Mena E. Williams Hirschberg holding the flag made of silk presented to Florida Governor Edward A. Perry during his inauguration in 1885.

She also later wrote “The Mulberry Tree and Its Uses” in 1889, recommending the mulberry tree as the solution to the “careless destruction of timber” in the United States. She suggested that because the mulberry tree was adaptable and could grow quickly in almost every climate and soil, it could help reverse deforestation. Moreover, if people were to plant mulberry trees across the country and cultivate silkworms as well,  a whole new industry might develop. Although her efforts to create a silk culture in the United States ultimately failed, Long’s interest in trees continued.

A mulberry tree in Mulberry, Florida. Mulberry was founded because it was conveniently located near four big phosphate plants — Palmetto Phosphate, Kingsford, Bone Valley and Land Pebble — in operation in the vicinity of this large mulberry tree.

After his election, Governor Perry became increasingly involved with the conservation movement, no doubt because of his friendship with Long. On December 16, 1885, Governor Perry hosted the first Southern Forestry Congress at DeFuniak Springs, Florida. He invited all Southern governors and requested that one delegate from each congressional district in their state attend the meeting. Delegates from the American Forestry Association, which was founded 10 years before, were also in attendance. The congress intended to address the importance of laws concerning forestry and other issues related to the subject. The delegates elected Long secretary of the congress, and during their second meeting in 1887, she delivered the welcome address to attendees. The group didn’t just talk about trees, they planted their own during their annual meetings. Each delegation planted a tree in its state’s honor, and each governor was also asked to plant and dedicate a tree honoring a historical figure from his state.

In 1888, the Southern Forestry Congress merged with the American Forestry Association (AFA) during the AFA’s annual meeting. Long presented a paper during the meeting titled, “Some Features of Tree-growth in Florida,” in which she advocated for controlled burning to maintain long-leaf  pine forests 50 years before it became the industry standard.  The paper was published in the proceedings a year later.

Florida Forestry Association members from Leon County managing a controlled burn at the J. W. Williams Memorial Forest (1959). Ellen Call Long advocated for controlled burning in 1889.

Governor Perry continued supporting efforts to conserve Florida’s tree population in 1886 and subsequent years by issuing the state’s first Arbor Day proclamation. He declared Wednesday, February 10 as Arbor Day in Florida. The proclamation states that tress “…tend to add to the healthfulness and comfort of our people and to the beauty of our State…” and requests that Floridians plant trees on this day, specifically mentioning schoolchildren, who will find Arbor Day “the most profitable day of the year.” The Sunshine State has been celebrating every year since, with the holiday now falling on the third Friday in January.

Governor Perry’s Arbor Day proclamation, 1886. State Archives of Florida, Proclamations and executive orders, Series 13, Volume 3, Page 193.

Ellen Call Long’s involvement in the conservation movement brought Florida into the national discussion about tree conservation. It is partly because of her interest in forestry that Floridians made an effort to protect the state’s trees, and Florida is now home to 37 state forests and three national forests.

You can learn more about Ellen Call Long in the Richard Keith Call Papers on Florida Memory. This collection contains digital scans of original letters to and from Richard Keith Call and Ellen Call Long, manuscript material on Florida history written by Richard Keith Call and Ellen Call Long, and miscellaneous materials connected to the life and times of the Call family.


Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Florida Forests.” Accessed April 25, 2018.

Proceedings of the American Forestry Congress at its Meeting Held at Atlanta, Ga., December, 1888. Washington: Gibson Bros., 1889.

“Save the Trees: Work of the Southern Forestry Congress.” The Weekly Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), November 3, 1887.

“Southern Forestry Congress.” The Weekly Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), December 22, 1885.

The Grove Museum. “Ellen Call Long.” Accessed April 25, 2018.

“The Southern Forestry Congress.” The Morning Mercury (Huntsville, Alabama), October 15, 1885.

“The Southern Forestry Congress.” The Weekly Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), February 3, 1887.

Some Trees Have Knees

If someone asked you to name something that lives for centuries, can grow over a hundred feet tall, and can have dozens of knees, what would you say it was? It might sound like some hideous creature, but most Floridians would know it’s actually the majestic bald cypress.

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a familiar sight near Florida’s many lakes, rivers, creeks, swamps, and springs. The trees generally take their time to grow, but that’s not really a problem for a cypress. They can live for hundreds of years. The Senator, a bald cypress that grew near Longwood in Seminole County until it was tragically burned in 2012, was estimated to be about 3,500 years old at the time of its death. (More on the Senator Tree here).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

One of the bald cypress’ most unusual characteristics is its “knees.” The knees are conical growths protruding up from the root system that radiates out from the tree’s trunk. They often have a knobby, knee-like appearance at the top. Their function is unknown, although studies suggest they may help the cypress absorb oxygen and remain stable in loose wet soils.

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress wood has long been admired for its beautiful grain, durability, and the ease with which it can be shaped and cut for building purposes. In the early 20th century, logging companies bought up vast tracts of land and cut much of the bald cypress growing in Florida swamps. The hearts of these trees, some of which were likely approaching a millenium in age, were sawed into lumber and marketed as “tidewater cypress.” The cypress industry is still in business, although the supply of available trees has dwindled considerably. Many cypress stands are now part of publicly owned protected wetlands.

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

As for the knees, they too have been a prized commodity. Their distinctive shape, natural broad base, and easy carvability make them perfect for creating figurines, birdhouses, and other small knick-knacks. Tom Gaskins of Palmdale, Florida made a career out of carving and shaping cypress knees for sale. He developed a Cypress Kneeland museum in Palmdale, featuring a collection of carved, peeled, and otherwise altered knees, plus a catwalk zig-zagging through an actual cypress swamp.

Along the path, visitors could see some of Gaskins’ experimental methods for shaping the knees as they grew. At various times, he tried flattening the knees with weights and carving designs into them so that the wooden flesh of the knees would grow around the cuts. Gaskins passed away in 1998, and the Cypress Kneeland Museum closed in 2000.

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins' creations (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins’ creations (1987).

Cypress trees and their unusual knees are just one of the features that make Florida a unique environment and all the more interesting. Which of Florida’s distinctive characteristics is your favorite? Share this post on social media or leave a comment below and get the conversation started!

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).