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Brownsville boasts nation’s largest anacahuita

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Posted: Friday, August 26, 2011 12:00 am

An anacahuita tree in Brownsville has been recognized as the largest tree of its species in the United States.

The 26-foot-tall anacahuita, or Mexican olive tree, has been named to the American Forests’ online 2011 National Register of Big Trees. It is one of 23 new champion big trees in Texas, bringing the state’s total to 86.

The Brownsville anacahuita has a circumference of 84 inches.

"The meaning of it is that it’s the largest tree of its species in the entire nation," Salvador Alemany, Rio Grande Valley regional urban forester with the Texas Forest Service, said. "It’s very impressive because we’re talking about millions of trees."

While conducting recent aerial urban tree studies in the Valley, he said he noticed a canopy of green in the cities. It’s a far cry from decades ago when the land here was cleared for agricultural use.

Trees are making a comeback in urban areas, he said. Brownsville’s champion tree lives in the San Pedro area nearby Military Highway.

Any tall trees that exist now likely survived being uprooted for the purposes of farming, he said.

Alemany, whose service area extends from Corpus Christi to Laredo, has a master’s from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

"The Valley is changing rapidly in terms of development," Alemany said. "Before, we were farming, and now we have an urban forest."

A tall anacahuita is particularly significant because the climate here leads to a slow growth rate for this type of tree and typically they are small, Alemany said. This means a tall tree of this species is probably fairly old.

"It’s a symbol of transition," he said of Brownsville’s champion tree.

According to Wikipedia, anacahuitas usually live 30 to 50 years and reach a height of 16 to 23 feet. Their native range extends from south Texas to central Mexico. The tree’s scientific name is Cordia boissieri.

Alemany said one of the tree’s common names is the Mexican olive tree because of what its fruit looks like. The tree is sometimes referred to as the Texas wild olive.

The species blooms year round with white flowers making it particularly tasty for insects and birds looking for pollen.

Alemany said humans have a natural attraction to trees.

"We evolved from the forest," he said. "We went from the forest to the savanna to hunt and then we moved (to farming). It’s part of our DNA. It’s in our genetics. We need the green. We need the trees."

Every year "big tree hunters" use specialized tools to find the tallest and thickest champions in the nation. They measure trees’ height, circumference and average crown spread and points are awarded for these dimensions.

Since 1940, a list of winning trees, like the one in Brownsville, is compiled annually in the National Register of Big Trees. The list is managed by American Forests, a national conservation group.

Sheri Shannon, with the Education and Outreach department of American Forests, called champion trees a point of pride for a community.

"Brownsville, Texas, is on the map with the biggest anacahuita tree, and that’s something to be proud of," she said in an email. "It is a major feat for trees to survive diseases and pests, natural disasters, or even the mistreatment of humans. Big trees are universal symbols of what a tree looks like when it is properly cared for and allowed to live a full and healthy life. Trees provide many ecological benefits such as clean air and water and habitats for wildlife."

As of this year, Texas is one champion tree away from overtaking Arizona for second most champion trees in the country on the national register, according to a press release. Arizona has 87 champion big trees, while Texas has 86. Florida is in first place, with 106.

Also on the national register for 2011 is a great leucaena in McAllen. More than 35 Texas counties are home to a national champion big tree, the press release said.

Texas also has a big-tree register, and Brownsville’s big anacahuita is a champion there, too.

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