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Branching out in a storm

Published: June 24th, 2008

Category: Spotlights

Ed Gilman

Ed Gilman

Professor of Environmental Horticulture
College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Ed Gilman has been obsessing about trees since he was 10 years old.

City officials in his hometown of West Orange, N.J., came along and planted trees along his street – and he was hooked.

“It just seemed like such a cool thing to know about,” he said.

The University of Florida environmental horticulture professor has spent a career proving that there’s a science to keeping urban trees – those that grow in neighborhoods, not in the forest – healthy and standing.

Recent hurricanes have increased interest in tree sturdiness and safety, as well as prompted some homeowners to panic and cut down otherwise healthy trees.

Even so, the biggest problem Gilman sees is that most people don’t realize that trees need maintenance, just like your car. A well-trained arborist can spot problems such as double trunks or decaying root systems, but most homeowners never consult one.

Correct pruning is crucial, he says.

In a recent experiment, Gilman and civil and UF wind engineer Forrest Masters used a nearly 900-horsepower wind machine borrowed from colleagues at Florida International University to test that.

Video from the experiment shows unpruned trees bending almost to the snapping point in the 120-mph wind, while the strategically-pruned trees showed far less movement, even with the same wind speed.

“Few people understand there’s a science behind it. They know that science is used to build bridges, or to fix bones. But in textbooks, there’s essentially nothing about the trees in your yard or near the street,” Gilman said. “We’re putting science to very applied work.”

Gilman is never happier than when he’s expounding on the benefits of trees. But he’s hard-pressed to pick a favorite.

“I have about a top 1,000 favorite trees that I like. And I probably could narrow it to a top 100 that I really enjoy. But I don’t think I could pick a favorite,” he said. “I guess I’d say a structure that’s strong, provides shade and is free of disease, that’d be my favorite.”

Photo credit: Kristen Bartlett Grace — University Photography

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