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Naples Daily News Feature

Saturday June 5, 2004

Wood-be hero: Melaleuca's a menace in the landscape, but a savior in mulched form, say its creators
By by TIFFANY YATES, At Home contributor
June 5, 2004

URL: http://www.naplesnews.com/npdn/at_home/article/0,2071,NPDN_14879_2935851,00.html
David Ahntholz / Staff

You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear, and you can't turn lead into gold, but two men with one mission have found a way to turn a Florida bane into a boon.

More than two decades ago, Dex Bender and John Cauthen, founders of Forestry Resources Inc. a Fort Myers company, decided to turn their efforts toward the proper management of Florida's native habitat. Bender, then head of the environmental consulting firm of W. D. Bender and Associates, "had this idea of, 'We've got to do something with this melaleuca,'" recalls Cauthen, who now runs the company solo.

Melaleuca trees are tall, gangly trees with peeling white bark and a crown at the top that gives them the shape of giant celery stalks. They were brought to our area early last century in an attempt to help dry up swampy Florida land for development. The fast-growing trees soon crowded out native flora, however, and are now illegal to plant. They are slowly being removed from areas under development.

Bender and Cauthen began extensive experimentation with the troublesome trees, which are a cousin to the variety that yields beneficial tea tree oil. After harvesting the trees from sites under development, they tried to make the melaleuca wood into paper. Experimented with turning it into charcoal. Explored its efficacy as lumber including as humble tomato stakes.

They also searched for "any chemical compound in the tree that could've been useful," Cauthen remembers.

Finally, in what Cauthen refers to as "poetic justice" for the aggressive tree, they ground it up and discovered it to be a plentiful, safe, attractive mulch for local gardens. They named it Florimulch.

Florimulch has more to recommend it than its seemingly endless supply of source material. As an excellent alternative to cypress mulch in its ability to protect roots, retain moisture, and control weeds, mulch made from the melaleuca tree may help save Florida's disappearing wetlands.

The cypress trees that make up so much of the wetland areas are invaluable to the ecology on many levels. They help purify water by filtering out some nutrients, for instance, and they provide a habitat for a number of animals including owls, wood storks, bobcats and woodpeckers.

Cypresses are also slow growers, so cutting them down leaves wetland areas unprotected and much more vulnerable to depletion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claimed in its 2000 report entitled "Wetland Status and Trends" that between 1986 and 1997, 644,000 acres of wetlands were lost, with an estimated annual loss rate of 58,500 acres. The greatest losses were being suffered in our area it said.

But Forestry Resources faced an uphill battle when it began marketing this innovative new product, Cathen says. Consumers were worried that the melaleuca seeds in the mulch would germinate and sprout more of the invasive trees.

Only time proved that theory wrong: Since 1983, there's never been a single incidence of melaleuca germination from the mulch, Cauthen says. A chemical released into the mulch as it is chipped up kills the seed's germination abilities.

Studies of melaleuca mulch at the University of Florida revealed another unexpected benefit: It was far more termite-resistant than traditional cypress or pine mulches.

Forestry Resources voluntarily solicits FDA inspection to certify that Florimulch is free of pests such as the burrowing nematode that attacks citrus and banana trees, and isn't contaminated with arsenic or other chemicals that can be found in mulch made from recycled products such as some pressure-treated woods.

The company even received the endorsement of famed Everglades conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her Friends of the Everglades organization as a boon in the fight to save the cypress and eradicate the melaleuca. 

Cauthen and Bender began targeting their initial marketing efforts to landscape architects, engineers, government organizations and the like in what Cauthen calls "a grass-roots approach to marketing."

It was slow going at first "it took years of banging on them!" he declared of their target audience but eventually customers started specifying Florimulch for their projects.

Now Forestry Resources produces three melaleuca-mulch products: the original Florimulch; Florimulch Plus, which contains a root biostimulant to protect against drought and pathogens; and Florimulch PlaySafe, an impact-resistant mulch free of finer particles designed for use in playgrounds. The products have been used in landscaping throughout Florida, and Cauthen says he has received inquiries about his innovative mulches from all over the U.S. and the Caribbean.

Though the product on which his company was founded finally attained the reception the company had hoped for, says Cauthen, "In the meantime we discovered we couldn't live by bread alone." He and Bender began developing various other mulches, soils, barks and stones currently nearly 30 different types of products, including a specially created environment-friendly mulch for WCI, the area's largest residential developer.

The company's product expansion helped it grow from a 3-acre property to their current 22-acre plant, with Cauthen now looking to add another 15 acres? for composting. And the operation grew to include Forestry Resources Landscape Supply, a retail shop at the corporate office in Fort Myers, with additional outlets in Naples, Estero, Cape Coral, and one due to open in Lehigh.

Florimulch products are also sold at area Albertson's and Lowe's stores, as well as a handful of other gardening centers. The cost is a little higher than traditional mulches usually by about $1 but mulch made from melaleuca trees offers a longer service life. It decomposes more slowly than cypress and other mulches as well as a slower settling rate.

John Sibley, owner of the All Native Garden Center in Fort Myers, is such a fan of the mulch's performance, it's the only kind he carries in his shop, he says. With his store's devotion to caring for native flora, he likes the environmental responsibility of using melaleuca mulch. But he said he is also impressed with its durability, appearance, and resistance to floating especially during a southwest Florida rainy season.

When he used the Florimulch to landscape his shop, the following 24 hours brought 10 inches of rain. Fearing all his hard work would have washed away particularly on berms on the property he checked the area the next day.

"It was right where we put it," he says. "That made a believer out of me.

"We've found it to be really the perfect mulch."

Bryan Capron loads melaleuca trees logs into a horizontal shredder to grind into mulch at Forestry Resources Inc. in Fort Myers. The invasive tree, which the company uses to make FloriMulch, makes a good mulch because its resistant to many local pests.

Melaleuca-based mulch comes out of the horizontal shredder at Forestry Resources Inc. In addition to shredded mulch, Forestry Resources also makes a courser chipped product from the melaleucas.

Pallets stacked with finished bags of FloriMulch are shrink-wrapped and ready for distribution at Forestry Resources Inc.

Copyright 2004, Naples Daily News. All Rights Reserved.

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