Port St. Joe residents began gathering in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot shortly before 1 p.m. on Friday, bundled in their winter gear and huddling close to the Florida Forest Service’s truck, which provided shelter from the cold wind.
On the back of the truck were 150 trees of a variety of native species.
“We’ve got Shumard oak, live oak, bald cypress, sweetgum, sweet bay and red maple,” Forestry Worker Jeffry Johnson told those gathered.
All were small, and most were leafless, but Johnson said that come spring, the twigs would grow rapidly into beautiful, full trees, with some eventually reaching heights of 30 or 40 feet.
While national Arbor Day is in April, the state of Florida has been celebrating Arbor Day on the third Friday in January since 1886, making it one of the longest-observed Arbor Day celebrations in the country.
Every year, the Florida Forest Service launches a campaign to celebrate the holiday by handing out thousands of free trees across the state.
According to the Forest Service’s website, the campaign aims to spread awareness of the many services and benefits trees provide to the local environment, which Johnson said has become especially important in the years following Hurricane Michael.
The storm wiped out many of the Florida panhandle’s trees, which play a vital role in keeping the environment dry.
Since the storm, Gulf County has had increased flooding, which county officials say is in large part due to tree loss.
“We’ve lost millions of trees,” County Administrator Michael Hammond told the Star in November. “And if we don’t replace them, we’re going to continue to have problems, unless we figure out some way to divert some of this water, because trees suck up a lot of water.”
Last month, volunteers planted 500 long-leaf pine trees at Salinas Park on Cape San Blas, an effort that was years in the making and that residents hope will help the area with some of its continued flooding issues.
Additionally, the Forestry Service said that “by planting trees, you can save up to 20% on your summer energy bills and clean the air & water in your community.”
Forestry stayed in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot for a little less than an hour, waiting until all the trees had been given away.