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When I was on vacation last week, I took some pictures of the tree in my grandparents’ garden, a magnificent bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). Whereas the Norway maple in my back yard is like a rat or a pigeon (ubiquitous and worthless–yet amazing for its hardiness and success) the bald cypress is huge, ancient, and stately–a monarch among the trees. Bald cypresses, which are native to the great southern wetlands of the United States, can grow to immense size and live for over a thousand years.
Today bald cypresses are found in parks and gardens, frequently as stand alone specimen trees, but such was not always the case: ancient bald cypress forests, consisting of huge groves of thousand year old trees, once dominated the southern swamps of the United States. An old-growth stand of the trees can still be found near Naples, Florida–the grove is around 500 years of age and some of the trees exceed 40 m in height. Unfortunately for the great trees, they were extensively overharvested for their water-resistant rot-proof lumber. Nutria rats, which gnaw the seedlings to death, have prevented the forests from growing back. Furriers brought these large invasive rodents from the jungles of South America. The voracious creatures escaped into the Louisiana marshlands and have defied all predators and control efforts and proliferated throughout the southern states.
Bald cypresses are deciduous conifers–they shed their fine leafy needles during the winter (and are hence “bald”). Coincidentally, “cypress” is a misnomer: the tree is not in the same genus as the funereal cypresses although it is in the same family (the Cupressaceae) along with some of the world’s most spectacular trees, the redwoods, the sequoia, the dawn redwoods, and the Japanese Sugi (Sequoia, Sequoiadendron, Metasequoia, and Cryptomeria respectively).
The specimen in my grandparents’ yard lives in the mountains rather than the swamp, yet it is among the largest known. I’ll let the placard speak for itself, but it was written in 2005 and the tree has had a good 5 years of warm wet summers (which it loves).
Taxodium is an ancient genus of tree and various taxodium species were widespread throughout much of the Mesozoic Era. Fossil specimens date back to the Jurassic period so once these giant trees towered above the dinosaurs.