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These heritage trees are part of a family's legacy

Every day, Grace Hawkins looks outside at the live oak heritage trees in the yard of her Pensacola home and thinks of her mom.

The home was built by her parents, Devota and Frances Pye in the mid-1990s. Her mom loved the property for its three grand heritage oaks.

“They were mama’s pride and joy,” said Hawkins on a recent sunny afternoon. “She loved them — it’s why she bought the property and I’m hoping to keep the tradition going with my family.”

Devota and Frances have passed away and Hawkins is in the process of purchasing the home that her parents put so much love and thought into. Devota loved her heritage trees so much she had the house built around them so they wouldn’t be disturbed.

“What a smart lady,” Hawkins said of her mother. “She took the measurements of where the trees were and she laid out the house. She did the plans for the floorplans herself.”

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Courtesy photo
Grace Hawkins' grandkids climbing one of the heritage trees on her property. They have been a source of play for decades.

The live oak trees are a playground for the grandkids and great-grandkids who have visited the house over the years. One tree at the front of the house is 276 inches in diameter and the other, located at the back of the house at the end of the sandy driveway — which cannot be paved due to the tree’s roots — is 294 inches in diameter.

“They get up in here and that is the coolest place like a little treehouse-type thing,” she said pointing upward. “They love it.”

Trees have become a hot-button issue locally. In Santa Rosa County, a group of residents protested against clear-cutting for housing subdivisions. And in August, concerned citizens in Escambia County advocated to try and save an 85-inch in diameter heritage live oak tree from being cut down. Attempts to appeal the removal failed and the tree has now come down.

Jimmie Jarratt, Escambia County’s arborist, said there are ways to develop land and save trees. And the plans that Hawkins’ mother set in place are proof.

“It’s a great example of how they laid out the site prior to building,” said Jarratt. “They knew where the trees were exactly and what shade they wanted. And (they) allowed enough rooting space because trees are all about their roots and making sure they have enough sustainability and uptake of nutrients.”

Trees, as we know, are not just nice to look at but they provide numerous benefits.

“From stormwater reduction and shading and not only from the shade itself but the tree actually transpires and you can reduce your temperature by up to 20 degrees; there’s been a lot of studies so you’re reducing your heating and cooling,” said Jarratt. “It’s just a very big environmental benefit.”

Jarratt remarked that the trees appear to be in good health and will provide nutrients to the smaller trees around them.

“Trees of this size and this age — someone has taken care of this property for a long, long time and probably many generations before that and they’re nestled together and they’re actually protecting each other,” said Jarratt.

The trees are “hidden gems,” she said.

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Jennie McKeon
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WUWF Public Media
One of the heritage trees in front of Grace Hawkins' home where she hosts movie nights for her family.

“And what is truly amazing is that it is still actively growing; it still has a lot of new branches on it,” she said. “This tree isn’t done yet, it’s still got a lot of life left in it.”

On crisp, cool days Hawkins sits on her front porch to enjoy the view before her. Some nights, there are chairs and blankets beneath the trees while Hawkins and her family enjoy movies.

“We have movie night under the trees; we put a blanket, rather a sheet, between two pillars at the front porch and we have a projector and we stream movies from Roku channels,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins’ next idea is to wrap the largest heritage tree, which sits in the middle of her front lawn, in miniature lights to leave twinkling all year long.

“Mother loved decorating and if it’s going to add to it, and do some decorating, she would just love it,” she said. “She would flip for it.”

And even though she may cut a few hanging limbs, Hawkins said she’ll never even think about cutting down the trees.

“They’re too gorgeous to just cut down; I just can’t imagine them not being in this yard,” she said. “They’re gorgeous.”