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The Mound House's “warrior”

Damaged strangler fig will survive its loss of limbs.

September 27, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Long before Fort Myers Beach was a town, there stood a tree on top of a shell mound.

The strangler fig at the Mound House started as a single seed that fell on top of an orange tree. Since then, it overtook its host and has stood at the top of the hill for more than 150 years. It's survived many storms and many owners in its lifetime, but Hurricane Irma nearly defeated it.

The storm caused the oldest section of the tree to weaken and split. Now, half of the Mound House's iconic fig has lived its lifespan.

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The oldest section of the strangler fig at the Mound House fell down during the high winds of Hurricane Irma.

But Mound House Director Alison Giesen said all is not lost - and the remainder of the tree won't be cut down.

"The other part is very healthy," she said. "Now we'll shape it up."

The remaining living tree lost many of its leaves, but Giesen said that was a natural side effect of the hurricane-force winds, not an indication that the rest of the tree is dying.

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A tribute to fallen trees

While the Mound House Warrior might be spared its life, other trees on the island and around the county did not get so lucky.

Hercules Drive's mighty tree at the end of the street was toppled during the storm. The large tree was a community focal point and street residents adamantly protected it from any potential loss - manmade ones, that is.

Hercules Drive is slated for a storm water outfall. During a meeting earlier this year, residents spoke up to make sure the infrastructure could go around the tree.

"I love that tree," said resident Penny Jarrett in a previous story. She said she would often spend a lunch under the branches, looking out over the bay.

Vice Mayor Tracey Gore asked during the Sept. 21 council meeting if the tree could be righted and saved, but staff said it was a loss.

The Edison Ford Winter Estates also suffered a loss. Its Mysore fig, near McGregor Boulevard, fell over and exposed its beautifully-intricate root system. Mound House Director Alison Giesen used to work at the Estates before moving on to the Mound House and she said that had been her favorite tree.

"It's a shame," she said. "It was so unique."

Strangler figs are "walking" trees. They start growing when a seed is dropped atop another tree. Its roots grow down from there, and the tree grows that way its entire life. These "aerial roots" help it "walk" out from its original host tree and expand. When the root touched down to the ground, it starts growing into another trunk.

The part that has died was showing signs of decay before the storm, Giesen said. Its days were already numbered.

But part of the problem was that this strangler fig had not been allowed to put down any aerial roots in a long time - and these roots are essential for the strength and stabilization of the tree.

When Giesen assumed her position three years ago, she noticed the fig didn't have the iconic dangling roots. In the past, it's common practice to cut them because it's more aesthetically pleasing and easier to maintain, she said.

She hired a certified arborist at the time to help her cultivate aerial roots and try to save the weaker, oldest section. Before Irma hit, she'd finally gotten a few roots to grow all the way to touch the ground.

Although she's pleased the rest of the tree will survive, it was difficult to see the mighty tree felled in half.

"I was heartbroken. I had worked hard to save that part," she said. "But, (the rest) will flourish. Now, we're trying to really cultivate those aerial roots to strengthen the tree."

The William H. Case house and the rest of the Mound House grounds escaped relatively unscathed from the storm; the 1921-era home suffered only the loss of a few porch screens and shingles from the roof. One gutter detached, but otherwise, it was lucky, Giesen said - "Just some small cosmetic issues, nothing compared to what others have dealt with."

Mound House volunteer Ceel Spuhler has a different theory as to why the Mound House was spared significant damage.

The warrior of the Mound House protected its charge.

"That tree that was standing was a warrior," she said. "I've always had a thinking the tree was a protector of the Mound House."

When she returned to the historical site after the storm, Spuhler said she sat quietly and contemplated the iconic tree with its wounds. This strangler fig was fully grown by 1906; it's seen in most of the site's oldest photographs. It survived Hurricane Donna in the 1960s. But while the tree might have suffered a deadly blow from Hurricane Irma, the island's historical gem, the house, was spared.

"It fought like a warrior," Spuhler said. "Part of it let go and fell to the ground, but the warrior stood proud and protected the house."



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