Without even knowing its history, there is something prehistoric about a cypress tree, its stretched gray skin rising out of the water like the foot of some ancient elephant. Perhaps the greatest trait of a cypress swamp is its inaccessibility, a characteristic that allows a swamp-wanderer to think, “How many thousands of years has this view remained the same?”
Like the fish that have settled among the tree’s woody knees, so have we placed ourselves in the land of the cypress. Up in the Delta lives a cypress tree nearly as old as our country, and 10 miles offshore is a forest older than our coastline. For being so old, however, there’s still plenty of mystery surrounding the bald cypress.
THE TREE’S KNEES
The greatest mystery of the bald cypress anatomy centers around its knobby wooden knees. It was once believed that the pointed stumps protruding above its root system helped the tree access oxygen, but there is little evidence to support this theory. Others think the knees give the tree some much-needed stability in soggy swamps, but the official answer is that researchers still aren’t sure what purpose they serve. Cue the creepy swamp music …
BIG, FRIENDLY GIANTS
Bald cypress trees don’t live life in the fast lane, but they make up for their slow growth rates by living very long lives. The result? Cypresses that are very tall and very old. The tallest specimen known is 145 feet tall while the oldest is more than 1, 620 years young. If all this sounds familiar, it should: The bald cypress is in the same family as the redwood.
The bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum) is the trademark tree of Southern swamps. The species is native to humid climates that get a lot of rain, and they usually grow along rich, silty rivers. Unlike most trees in the family Cupressaceae, the bald cypress is a deciduous conifer, meaning that it loses its foliage in the winter months — in case you were wondering about the whole “bald” thing.
A ROT TO THINK ABOUT
Not surprisingly, the wood of a bald cypress is known for its water resistance and is often used accordingly (e.g. housing shingles). Cypress wood is also known as “wood eternal” because of its imperviousness to rot; even prehistoric samples of cypress have occasionally been deemed usable!
The Land of the Cypress
- Southwest Alabama was once a land of towering forests. Ancient trees, comparable to the redwoods of the West Coast, once stood sentinel along the swampy banks of the Delta — and the bald cypress ruled them all. Predictably, logging got the best of these forests as our lands were settled, as evidenced today by the enormous stumps still to be found by those who know where to look.
- With a whopping 27-foot circumference, the largest cypress in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is the state’s second largest tree overall. It’s estimated to be between 200 and 300 years old, raising questions about why this tree escaped logging while so many other monster cypresses in the area met the axe. Some point to the evidence of frequent lightning strikes, its hollowness and its isolation as reasons why the tree would have been undesirable to loggers.
- In 2012, local conservationist Ben Raines discovered an ancient forest of bald cypress trees 10 miles off the Alabama coast. (Avid fishermen had long suspected a natural reason for the heightened presence of wildlife there.) Under about 60 feet of water, the primeval trees had been blanketed by ocean sediment and preserved in an oxygen-free environment for more than 50, 000 years before being uncovered by some significant storm event, likely Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The cypress wood is so well preserved that, when cut, it reportedly still smells like fresh cypress sap. Researchers speculate that the trees’ growth rings contain thousands of years of climate history for our region, a valuable glimpse into a period of time known as the Wisconsin Glacial period. Unfortunately, the newly exposed forest likely only has a few years to be studied before wood-burrowing marine creatures devour the ancient trees.