By Donald Wittkowski
Six years later, Mary Lou Hayes still becomes emotional thinking about the beautiful Leyland cypress trees at her 31st Street home in Ocean City that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy’s fierce winds and raging flood waters.
“I’m going to cry,” Hayes said, wiping away tears. “It was so sad, because this town used to be covered with trees.”
Hayes, though, was one of the volunteers Monday in Ocean City who participated in a state-sponsored seedling giveaway that is helping communities across New Jersey slowly replace some of the trees damaged or lost to the hurricane’s fury in October 2012.
Altogether, the state Tree Recovery Campaign will distribute 500,000 seedlings to New Jersey residents over a five-year span. In Ocean City, 2,000 trees were given out for free on Monday at City Hall, the Community Center and at the three schools.
At this point, most of the seedlings are little more than willowy stalks about a foot or two high. However, tree lovers envision them blossoming into their full botanical beauty in years to come to create more green space in a beach town crowded with vacation homes and condos.
“When properly planted and maintained, trees can be assets to a community,” according to a press release explaining the goal of the Tree Recovery Campaign. “They improve the visual appeal of a neighborhood or business district, increase property values, reduce home cooling costs, remove air pollutants and provide wildlife habitat, among many other benefits.”
Hayes, a former longtime member of Ocean City’s Shade Tree Committee, mainly loves trees for their beauty. She shared plenty of advice for their care while handing out the seedlings to residents at City Hall.
“No volcanoes. It rots the base of the trees,” she said while reminding them not to pile mulch directly around the seedlings once they are planted.
Bayberry, beach plum, black gum, mockernut hickory, Norway spruce, white pine and willow oak were some of the varieties of trees given away in Ocean City.
Hayes said the mockernut hickory trees can grow as high as 100 feet tall. She cautioned, however, that they are not tolerant of salt water, so property owners should think twice about planting them in flood-prone areas of town.
Bayberry trees, on the other hand, are good at withstanding both flood waters and high acidity levels. Bayberries are natural to the barrier islands, making them a perfect choice for the Jersey Shore, Hayes explained.
Ocean City resident Loretta Harris picked up two bayberry seedlings that she plans to plant at her house on Haven Avenue.
When asked whether she thought her newly adopted seedlings have any chance of growing into mature trees, Harris replied, laughing, “Hopefully.”
Although it may be hard to imagine now, Ocean City was covered with trees, including bayberry, pine and cedar, when it was founded as a Christian seashore retreat by four Methodist ministers in 1879. In the 1800s, the island was an expanse of marshlands, meadows and cedar swamps.
Myriad trees, particularly the cedars, were cut down later on to make masts for the wooden sailing ships popular in the 1800s, said Joseph Clark, chairman of the Ocean City Shade Tree Committee.
“Originally, it was all trees,” Clark noted of the town’s beginnings. “But anything that was tall was taken down for ship masts.”
Clark pointed out that some of Ocean City’s early holly trees have survived and are estimated to be around 300 years old. Parts of town remain dotted with aged hollies and other very old trees, he said.
During Hurricane Sandy, Ocean City lost many pine and pear trees, as well as shrubs, Clark and Hayes said. Hayes will never forget the five Leyland cypress trees that were destroyed at her house.
But now, the Tree Recovery Campaign gives Ocean City a chance to replace its green and leafy hurricane casualties – one seedling at a time.