December 16, 2019

Ancient Trees: The Baldcypress, Part 2

Image by George Connor
Historically, old growth Baldcypress growing in the swamps, bottomlands, and along rivers of the Southeastern United States were commercially valuable. Individual trees were often huge, with straight, relatively unbranched trunks that could be cut into long, rot-resistant boards and shingles. 
Image by American Lumberman Magazine

By the nineteen twenties, nearly all  of the ancient giants had been logged out, and the unique ecology and species mix of their habitat also vanished. Fortunately, climatological conditions at the time were favorable for the germination and survival of a large group of seedlings. Many of today’s mature trees began their lives at that time.
Baldcypress populations are considered relatively stable for now, even though overall southern forest loss has accelerated. Coastal populations of the species, in particular, are threatened by rising sea levels and increasing salinity in the wet places where they grow. Trees of all ages are harvested to be shredded and sold as landscaping mulch, although production seems to have slowed recently. Clearcutting of the trees for wood pellet production to fuel European power plants is eliminating many acres of Baldcypress.
Baldcypress Clearcut.
 Image by the Dogwood Alliance
What grows on the cleared land is nothing like the former forest.  Increasing urbanization and more intensive land use and drainage also impact all three Baldcypress species (or varieties), in the United States and Mexico.

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, 1935.
The largest North American woodpecker species, now extinct, fed and nested in Baldcypress.
Image by Arthur Allen

Locally, old growth trees of the Pond Cypress variety are found in the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades. Venerable Baldcypress can be experienced in the Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, east of Naples, Florida. An impressive grove of large trees, not publicly accessible, is protected by the Seminole Tribe on its Big Cypress reservation.

Baldcypress at Pinecrest Gardens
 One  priceless group of old growth Baldcypress can be found in the Miami area, at Pinecrest Gardens. These coastal trees, growing slightly inland from mangroves along what was once Snapper Creek, were doubtlessly present when the first Spanish explorers made landfall. The aboriginal Tequesta people camped and fished beneath them. Weakened by European disease, converted to Christianity and transported to Cuba, the tribe vanished long ago, but the trees remain. 


December 9, 2019

Ancient Trees: The Baldcypress

Baldcypress along the  Arkansas River.
Image by Linda Tanner
The Baldcypress, Taxodium distichum, is an evocative symbol of southern lakes, river bottomlands, and swamps. These ancient members of the Cypress family occur as far north as Southern Illinois and Maryland and as far west as South-Central Texas.
The Famous Arbol del Tule Montezuma Cypress, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Image by Gengiskanhg
Baldcypresses, along with several related genera like the Redwood and Sequoia, were placed in their own family, the Taxodiaceae. Now, all are classified in the same family with a number of other conifer genera, such as true Cypress and Juniper. Surprisingly for such a well-known genus, it seems that its three members have hardly any genetic differences between them, and are either varieties of a single species or perhaps two. Baldcypress wood is extremely rot-resistant to water. Submerged trunks, lost during historical logging activities, are valuable, and often salvaged for milling. 
Along the Wacissa River, Jefferson County, Florida.
Image by Arnold Dent
I’ve seen the trunks of trees toppled during the terrible hurricanes of the nineteen twenties lying in shallow water in the Big Cypress Swamp.  The species, when not topped by storms or lightening, is the tallest tree east of the Rockies, potentially growing to more than 140 feet. Old growth Baldcypress can still be found outside of preserves. Some squat, misshapen trees with little commercial use were never cut. Other trees survived logging by growing in deep water along rivers. Trees commonly live for several centuries. The oldest living tree, still hearty along the Black River of North Carolina, has reached the incredible age of 2624 years. It’s the oldest Eastern U.S. tree, the oldest wetland tree, and the fifth oldest tree in the world.   

Dwarf Pond Cypress in the Florida Everglades.
Image by Daniel Kraft