Harrison County

The Mississippi invention that saved the Live oaks on U.S. 49

These distressed Live oaks in the median of U.S. 49 were sprayed with an herbicide that MDOT initially thought killed them in 2010. Instead of cutting them, the state agency called in help to save them.
These distressed Live oaks in the median of U.S. 49 were sprayed with an herbicide that MDOT initially thought killed them in 2010. Instead of cutting them, the state agency called in help to save them.

They are alive and thriving — a group of huge Live oaks that “died” in 2010.

What helped save the trees in the median of U.S. 49 near the county line was a patented Mississippi invention.

The process fractures the soil around trees with a powerful blast of air injected into the ground, patterned after the old practice of breaking up ground with dynamite in the early 1900s. The Fulgham’s Inc. invention worked on these trees.

The real factor in the trees’ survival, however, was the state Department of Transportation did not give up on them. Well, actually they did at first.

In July 2010, the state agency noted in a press statement that the trees had been poisoned when MDOT workers oversprayed for invasive cogongrass and they were goners and would be replaced with new trees.

Sun Herald readers and others lamented the error and the loss of old trees that were believed to have been planted by the McHenry community long before U.S. 49 was a four-lane road. MDOT’s Michael Pol said, “They can’t be saved,” then something happened.

MDOT decided to try.

District Engineer Kelly Castleberry said they had a horticulturist at the time who likely came into play. They hired Fulgham’s Inc. to treat them.

“These trees have meaning for the state,” Castleberry said, “the grand southerly tree of the Gulf Coast. We try to keep those if we can, if they aren’t causing a safety issue.”

In keeping with MDOT regulations, the seven trees were a safe distance from drivers who might leave the road. But they looked dead — foliage gone, limbs bare. They had been poisoned at the roots. People started reporting seeing dead branches.

MDOT made no announcement at the time about the decision.

“We were just trying to get them to come out,” Castleberry said.

After all, that area of U.S 49 is kind of like a little Gateway to the Coast, he said. The trees are just north of where Mississippi 67 meet U.S. 49, near the De Soto National Forest trail head.

The trees put on new growth after the first treatment by Fulgham’s. One tree eventually had to be removed, but the treatments went on for three years, with the state fertilizing between.

The treatments stopped a couple of years ago, and the trees are still growing.

They still had energy left

When David Fulgham first saw the poisoned trees, he said, “a lot of them looked like they were dead or about to die.”

Even with that, he told MDOT, “Let’s not cut these trees down right now. Let us treat them and watch them.”

MDOT agreed.

“We treated them three or four times in the first year,” Fulgham said. “They started to put out new buds and slowly show some growth within six to 12 months.”

MDOT mulched under them and that helped, David Fulgham said.

“What it comes down to is there was still energy left in those roots and it was enough to overcome the damage that was done,” he told the Sun Herald. “A couple I said were dead, months later, in passing, I saw something happening.”

“The treatment was just encouraging them to do what they do. Live oak is an ever(green) tree, they can recover a lot quicker.”

The speed with which they bounce back can be amazing, he said.

Coast connection

Fulgham’s has more than quadrupled in size since its founder, David’s father, came up with the patented root treatment in 2006.

David Fulgham runs the business now, but soon after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he committed the company to the Coast to help the damaged trees here. Though the business is based in Tupelo, it has had a Coast connection since the 1990s and has branched out regionally. It is now seeking vendors to pick up the patented method in states as far away as Iowa.

The Gulf Coast regional manager Ben Kahlmus works from Pensacola to Baton Rouge. And the company was Arborist of the Year in Mississippi in 2013. It does restoration projects, and is hired to come onto a building site with old trees and protect them during construction.

“I’ve learned not to just write off a tree,” Fulgham said.

The root-boosting method uses a tool to inject air under pressure into the top 12 inches of soil, where the feeder roots grow. It looks like the ground is lifting up from an underground shock wave.

The treatment breaks apart the soil and allows water and nutrients to enter naturally. But the Fulgham’s method also injects a liquid soil conditioner. Trees don’t die from lack of fertilizer, Fulgham said, the urban environment encroaches on them. The soil is compacted and poor, and water can’t get to the roots.

“The tree business is an isolated market,” he said, “then you specialize in soil and root development. But if you have a patent on the service you provide, well, it has helped our business considerably. We get a lot of referrals from unnamed people in state agencies, landscape architects and foresters.”

“It’s hard to believe you can stay busy doing what we do,” he said, “but people see the value in community trees.

“We’re one of the poorest state in the nation, yet we’ve been able to grow this tree business in the state.

“It says a lot about the people and their outlook on trees.”