Image of an Albizia saman rain tree
Image of an Albizia saman rain tree

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - Passions are running high as a Florida octogenarian with deep roots in the community is being threatened with displacement by the new property owner.

Sounds like yet another chapter in the ongoing housing meltdown, except that the octogenarian in this case is an 80-year-old tree with actual roots that currently reside on (and in) a piece of property owned by land developer Asi Cymbal.

Cymbal wants to develop a portion of land along the riverfront in Fort Lauderdale. His plan includes a contemporary complex comprised of three towers including rental units, restaurants and a marina. Fans of the plan see a revitalization of a part of town that they say could definitely use it. Critics worry that a nearly 100-year-old tree won’t survive the move to another part of the development.

The tree at the heart of the matter is known as a rain tree (Albizia saman). It’s not a native Floridian but like so many other transplants it has been embraced by the state it calls home. In 1982 it was named a Florida Champion by the Florida Division of Forestry, a designation given to the largest member of a species in the state.

Florida and Hawaii are the only states with rain trees, so named because the trees were first thought to be rain makers. “The grass underneath the tree is often green when surrounding grass has dried out and died,” according to The World Encyclopedia of Trees. “In reality the leaves close at night and during showers, allowing rain to fall on to the grass below” while other nearby trees receive less or none.

Rain trees are prized as shade trees and planted for that purpose in the tropics. The trees can be quite attractive with dimensions often wider than tall. Some feature dense crowns up to 200 feet wide and trees can grow to 115 feet tall. The rain tree in Fort Lauderdale measures 61 feet tall with a 20-foot trunk and a canopy that measures 127 feet wide, according to a report by the Sun Sentinel.

In Hawaii rain trees are considered a source of premier craftwood and have been used to make turned souvenir bowls and other wood products. Rain tree lumber is considered durable and with its cream colored sapwood, dark heartwood and ability to take finish well, it is a popular choice for furniture and paneling. The tree is considered an excellent source of high quality firewood and its pods, aka monkey pods, are a food source for cattle, horses and goats.

The fate of the rain tree remains in question. If Cymbal’s plan wins approval, the tree will be relocated some 800 feet from its present location, says the Wall Street Journal, in a newly created park. Those hoping to block the tree’s transplantation are hoping the Fort Lauderdale City Commission will block any moves by declaring the tree historic. The Broward County Commission failed to pass a measure in December 2012.

View video posted by WSJDigital.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.