A healthy sea grape tree

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The Sunshine State has a lot more to offer than just the prospect of being able to tan in the dead of winter. Florida’s sunny temps also provide the first peak tree planting season opportunity in the entire country. That's why we celebrate Arbor Day in January when the national celebration isn’t until April.

Arbor Day’s sole purpose is to help spread awareness about the importance of trees, so this year, select Sarasota County parks are hosting a "Tree Quest," or scavenger hunt, that makes visiting the parks and learning about trees a fun, interactive activity. The scavenger hunt will begin on Jan. 17 and last for two weeks and include prizes like free day passes to parks, tree ID gift books and more.  There are three parks where participants can complete the hunt: Culverhouse Park, Manasota Scrub Park and North Lido Beach. 

Participants will find tagged trees in the park of their choice and fill out clues based on the information found on the tags. They will then submit their answers for a chance to win a prize. The tags will list the trees' various benefits to the environment. For example, a tag on one of the oak trees at Manasota Park will list how much carbon dioxide the tree absorbs and how many gallons of water it filters in a year.  Some of the trees scavengers will be looking for include sea grape trees, slash pine, laurel oak and scrub oak.

“Trees provide a lot of benefits to our communities. In my view, they are the unsung heroes,” says UF/IFAS Extension horticulture agent Marguerite Beckford. 

That's an understatement. Trees not only filter water and absorb carbon dioxide, but they also have a cooling effect.The United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends planting trees and shrubbery to reduce temperatures—they can reduce the hottest summer temperatures by 2-9 degrees Fahrenheit. They also provide a habitat for a number of animals.

As Florida braces for rising sea levels, ocean acidification and increasing temperatures, Arbor Day celebrates the trees that help fight the battle against climate change. “Not to mention, trees also absorb carbon monoxide that builds up in an urban environment,” says Beckford. 

Urban areas, like downtown Sarasota, heat up much more than areas covered in greenery. Urban areas contain heat in such a way that the heat functions like an insulated cloud over the city. This phenomenon is called an urban heat island. Trees, with their leafy canopies and abundant shade, help combat that. 

Trees also filter stormwater runoff, which is water that flows through streets and driveways and collects fertilizer, pesticides, oil and other chemicals.  Trees soak in this water, then filter it through their root systems before it enters the rest of the environment. Trees soaking up stormwater runoff also means flooding is less likely to occur. 

So starting tomorrow, head to one of the three parks to start hunting for clues. “It's a great way to get families outside, looking at trees and celebrating Arbor Day,” says Beckford.

 The different parks for participants to choose from are Culverhouse Park (7301 McIntosh Road, Sarasota), Manasota Scrub Preserve (2695 Bridge St., Englewood) and North Lido Beach (50 Benjamin Franklin Drive, Sarasota). The scavenger hunt will begin on Jan. 17 and continue until Jan. 31. More information is available here.

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