'Whoever thought a tree couldn't fly?' Green giant quite a showboat on move to new West Palm home
Updated: Sep 27, 2022
“LOOK AT THAT! Airborne! Whoever thought that a tree could not fly?’’
Oswald Oakley could not contain his enthusiasm, and no one watching what he was watching that afternoon on the south end of West Palm Beach could blame him.
A massive green buttonwood — 153,000 pounds, at least 100 years old, with a canopy 40 feet high and 80 feet wide — was rising above Petty Park under the spell of a crane.
With braided branches and gnarly twisted trunks straight out of “The Hobbit,” the majestic tree was about to take a sunset cruise to a new home along the Intracoastal Waterway.
It was around 4:45 p.m. on Sept. 7 and the show behind Washington Road was just getting started.
As scores of neighbors and nervous construction crewmen watched, the big tree gently twirled above the beach, a green giant dancing in the sky, until it touched down on a flat barge, which was then ferried by tugboat 350 yards north.
The next day, the tree was off-loaded at Monceaux Park and re-planted in a fresh bed of soil, all but ending a delicate and complex production brought to you by Aquantis Group, the luxury-home developer that paid the tree’s $150,000 relocation bill.
Crews guide the green buttonwood to its new home in Monceaux Park on Sept. 8, 2022 (Jeremy Thornton)
A few days later, the director of the production stopped by Monceaux Park to check on his star.
“It's beautiful. It's an architectural specimen,’’ said Oakley, the project manager on a multimillion-dollar home Aquantis Group is building just north of Petty Park at 3030 Washington Road, where the mature buttonwood had flourished over parts of three centuries before the crane took hold of it on Sept. 7.
“This tree has a special purpose,’’ Oakley said, “and I think its purpose here in this park is suited. It's not tucked away in the backyard of someone's home. It's out here where it can be admired and loved.’’
And getting it there was quite the show, an awe-inspiring spectacle witnessed by neighbors standing along the seawall and Flagler Drive high-rise dwellers with binoculars.
“It was kind of wild to see something that large moving and sitting on the water,’’ said Sean Heyniger, 57, a Washington Road resident who remembers climbing the tree as a boy. “It was a pretty amazing thing to watch.’’
Perhaps even more amazing were the logistical challenges overcome by the three companies that performed the bulk of the actual relocation: J.D. Thornton Nurseries of Clewiston, Allegiance Crane and Equipment of West Palm Beach and Grady Marine (website motto: “We BARGE right in!”) of Fort Lauderdale.
The tree (inside red brackets) was moved north 350 yards from the property just north of George Petty Park to Monceaux Park.
“This was a tricky move,’’ said Jeremy Thornton, third-generation president of the nursery/tree-moving company founded by his grandfather.
It took nine days to move the tree, which first had to survive a root-pruning that started seven months earlier.
The wind speeds had to be under 20 mph when it came time for the crane to lift the 78-ton green buttonwood from the ground and drop the tree into its new home.
And the barges could reach the tree only at high tide, with tight 90-minute windows for onloading and offloading.
“It was a real logistical challenge. We are lucky we were able to find the right team and get it done,’’ said David Lawrence, the architect for the home Aquantis Group is building at 3030 Washington Road.
“It was such a delicate tree, so old and so treasured, and we sure had to get it right,’’ he said. “It couldn't just be, ‘Oh, well, it didn't make it.’ That wasn't really an option, for it not to work.’’
UNTIL THE RELOCATION crews came along earlier this month, the tree might have been rooted in its original spot for as long as 150 years, according to a city arborist’s estimate. If true, that means the buttonwood first took root seven years after the end of the Civil War and 22 years before the city of West Palm Beach was established.
Although the city has not done a formal age survey of West Palm Beach’s oldest trees, the green buttonwood “is the oldest identified since I came to the city in 2015,’’ said arborist Ray Caranci, a senior landscape planner for the city.
“Most people who know trees are very impressed with this tree,’’ he said. “It’s somewhat difficult to tell in South Florida exactly how old a tree is. We are going to investigate a little bit more, but it’s at least 100 years and it could be as much as 150.’’
Green buttonwoods are hearty Florida natives, highly tolerant of full sun, sandy soil and salty conditions. This one thrived at its home overlooking the waterway behind 3030 Washington.
How it got there in the first place is unknown. But it grew so large, most of its canopy extended across the property’s southeast border and over the small public park to the south. (Originally known as Royal Palm Park, it was renamed in 1990 after Canadian paper mill magnate George Petty, a neighborhood leader who joined forces with Donald Trump in the 1980s to fight airport noise.)
The branches of this green buttonwood behind 3030 Washington Road, shown in 2015, extended into Petty Park. (City of West Palm Beach)
As the population of West Palm Beach grew over the years, generations of children climbed the tree’s branches, then, as adults, lounged in its shade with their children.
“I have seen people put hammocks in that tree and relax under the canopy reading books,’’ said Heyniger, president of the Historic Prospect and Southland Parks Neighborhood Association.
Despite the green buttonwood’s deep neighborhood ties, the big tree’s fate was set in motion in 2015 when 3030 Washington was purchased by a limited liability corporation owned by Aquantis Group founder Steve Bendat.
Aquantis Group has built several luxury homes on the city’s south end. 3030 Washington, marketed as “Direct Intracoastal Dream’’ on the company’s website, would be one of the latest additions to the company’s portfolio.
At first, Oakley said, “We thought (the tree) would be a nice feature on the rear of the property.’’ But eventually, the developers decided the new high-end home had to have panoramic views of the waterway.
If the tree stayed, “we couldn't sell the southern view,’’ Oakley said. “We don't know what kind of buyer we would get. Some might like the tree. Some might want the view. Buyers can be very picky. We decided the tree has to go.’’
Green buttonwood can be seen as crews (left) work on the new house at 3030 Washington Road just north of George Petty Park where the city is installing new drainage pipes.
Following city policies protecting mature trees, the West Palm Beach Historic Preservation Board in 2018 required Aquantis Group to preserve the massive tree by moving it to Petty Park. That appeared to be a relatively easy, and much less costly, solution since the 1-acre park is right next door.
But the developers initially put off the tree's location and focused on building the house. At one point, some neighbors saw workers cutting some of the limbs.
Oakley remembers one neighborhood walker saying, “You better take care of my tree!”
Meanwhile, the city had started planning for a major drainage project in George Petty Park. In early 2021, construction crews started installing new pipes that wound up taking the space needed to relocate the tree.
By the end of 2021, a new plan was in motion: The tree would be moved north, a distance of roughly three and half football fields, to Monceaux Park.
Because the tree was 40 feet high with a canopy 80 feet wide, going up Washington Road was out of the question.
This big old tree would need a special route.
Crews prune the rootball of the green buttonwood at 3030 Washington Rd. (Jeremy Thornton)
WHEN IT COMES to relocating giant trees, J.D. Thornton Nurseries might be the go-to company in Florida.
A few years ago, they relocated a large ficus, “four to five times” the size of the green buttonwood, on Star Island in Miami Beach. They’re currently preparing to move a 600,000-pound Banyan tree in Miami’s Indian Creek.
Compared to those mammoths, the green buttonwood was a relative dwarf. But it was still too large to be moved on a suburban street. Towing it on water was the only option.
And although J.D. Thornton Nurseries has moved plenty of trees by barge over the years, they had never attempted to move one this large via water.
“Normally we move those really big trees onsite. That one, we had to put it on a barge. That was a little more complicated,’’ said owner Buck Thornton.
The process started in February when crews started pruning sections of the green buttonwood’s root ball, which was just 20 inches deep but extended 25-feet by 25-feet.
The goal was “to create a root ball that can still support the tree and give enough root system to get established in its new location,’’ Jeremy Thornton said.
Crews started by cutting about half of the rootball. “We waited a few months, cut another 25 percent, waited another couple months,’’ he said.
The last section was pruned Sept. 6, the same day crews started digging the trunk out of the ground. But lifting the heavy tree and placing it on the barge presented another challenge.
(Photo by Jeremy Thornton)
To avoid damaging the tree, the crews built a platform out of 6-inch well-casing pipes, the kind used to drill oil.
As the final section of root ball was being pruned, the pipes were driven by a bulldozer horizontally across the bottom of the root ball, side-by-side, with the tree still in the ground, until they formed a makeshift platform.
“Because (the tree’s) so heavy, you don't want to pick it up by branches or trunk so we had to go underneath the tree to lift it,’’ Jeremy Thornton said
With the massive tree secured on top of it, the platform was tethered to a 400-ton crane via chains and firehose-like slings. Then, the crane slowly lifted, carried and placed the tree onto the barge.
Even though the tree was near the beach, getting the barge close enough to the crane required careful choreographing around weather conditions and tide levels.
The final cutting and lifting of the massive green buttonwood had to be done during high tide.
If the crews missed the 90-minute window, they’d have to wait another day, which would drive up the costs. Lucky for them, it went flawlessly.
(Photo by Jeremy Thornton)
“We managed to do it in about 15 mph winds,’’ Oakley said. “The barge had a low draft so it was able to come up to the seawall.’’
Pushed by tugboat, the barge made its way north at sunset on Sept. 7. From a distance, the massive tree appeared to glide on its own across the water, a surreal site to those who watched.
After spending the night on the barge, the tree was towed toward Monceaux Park on Sept. 8.
But it had to stay put in the water for several hours and wait for the crane to be dismantled at Petty Park, transported up Washington Road and reassembled at Monceaux Park, a lengthy process that blocked traffic.
Once in place, the crane grabbed the tree from the barge at high tide and lowered it into its new resting place, a patch of soil next to another home built by Aquantis Group, this one owned by Robert Schumer, the brother of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
“We tried to position the tree in a way we didn’t block too much of the view” for homeowners across the street from the park, who until Sept. 8 enjoyed unobstructed views of the waterway, Thornton said.
Flagler Drive resident Maiju Growick took this photo on a morning walk by Monceaux Park on Sept. 8, 2022
SPECIAL WOODEN PLATFORMS were built to support three of the tree’s branches for the next year. A permanent irrigation system, tied to the city’s water system, was installed. The Aquantus Group will pay the monthly water bills until the tree is formally turned over to the city next September.
“Every time we do these projects, because you are dealing with a living thing, it's really hard to give definite answers on how the projects will go. This one went really smooth,’’ said Thornton, who hired drone videographer Mike Anglin of Ahead Air to document the move.
Had the tree stayed in its original spot, it would have been even more vulnerable to sea level rise, said Lawrence, the architect.
“That tree’s days were kind of numbered where it was. Now it's behind a seawall. It's protected,’’ he said. “Now everyone gets to enjoy it.’’
Neighbors hope the city will put new benches under the tree. The neighborhood association plans to add a special sign or plaque.
(Photo by Jeremy Thornton)
“I watched with binoculars as they moved it off the barge,’’ said Maiju Growick, who lives in a penthouse in the Rapallo South condo tower on Flagler Drive.
“To save something like that, I think it is a fantastic and sweet thing that happened rather than getting rid of a gorgeous tree. It is a beautiful tree.’’
For Growick, a native of Finland, watching the green buttonwood arrive at its new home came on a day when she was consumed with news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
The next morning, Growick and her husband, Phil, walked to Monceaux Park to see the newly transplanted tree. They decided to call it “Elizabeth” in honor of the late queen.
Over the past few weeks, they’ve become de facto neighborhood ambassadors for “Elizabeth” as residents start to take notice of the massive new tree on the once-vacant triangle of land next to the seawall.
“All the people we meet when we walk up and down Flagler, they ask about the tree,’’ Phil Growick said, “and we say, ‘Well, that’s Elizabeth.’’
Jeremy Thornton, president of J.D. Thornton Nurseries, the company that moved the green buttonwood. (Joe Capozzi)
Later this year, the City Commission will consider a resolution designating the green buttonwood as an historic tree.
“It’s going to be a benefit to the historical district to have this tree there,’’ Caranci said, “and it's very visible coming down Flagler because of the way the road kind of curves around the park.’’
Sean Heyniger (white shirt) relaxes with his family at the green buttonwood tree in Monceaux Park (Joe Capozzi)
Overnight, the tree has transformed Monceaux Park into a magical place, offering a welcome respite for residents fed up with the ongoing construction work on Washington Road.
“That buttonwood is a very whimsical tree,’’ Heyniger said. “I don’t know if you read “The Hobbit” when you were a kid, but that's it reminds me of.’’
“I hope the tree can live another 100 years and bring the same joys I had over the years to many others,’’ he said. “It’s a majestic tree and now it has a new special home in the park in our historic neighborhood.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020.View all posts by Joe Capozzi.