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I was recently back at the family farm (which is in the Ohio Valley). Since I almost never go there in late autumn it gave me a precious opportunity to see some of my favorite trees wearing their brilliant fall raiment. Unfortunately I am no photographer–and I never found the time to paint a watercolor painting of autumn’s beauty–however I wanted to share the two most magnificent trees.

Here is the bald cypress which we planted to emulate grandpa’s bald cypress in Weston (which was apparently chopped down the moment he left his house). This tree is a young bald cypress, and it would still be in middle school if it was a human (which fortunately it is not, since it would be a dull child standing beside a goose pond all day), however it is already beginning to develop the knobby swamp knees and flying buttresses characteristic of the great cathedral cypresses of the southern swamp. It is maybe 6 meters (20 feet tall) and it is growing fast. I wish I could have captured the beauty of its warm orange fronds, because in the setting sun they glowed like it was a little ember from the November sun. I wish I could explain to you how winsome the tree is. There is something about all of the Cupressaceae which makes one want to hug them like a robe wearing lunatic from Northern California.

The second tree was my parents’ first choice of trees to plant and it is beginning to reach stunning maturity. It is a pecan tree and it is starting to produce nuts. You can’t see how large it is, but it probably about 13 or 14 meters (45 plus feet) and it is also growing fast. Sadly I could not capture its size with pictures (I need a giraffe or a basketball player to go stand beside it), but when you are near it, you now get a feeling of awe–in addition to whatever appreciation you have for its graceful lines and lovely proportions. There are larger trees back in the forest, but they are forest oaks, walnuts, and hickory which grow tall and straight and do not spread like the glorious pecan. Pecan trees are capable of growing to 40 meters (130 feet) in height with a spread of 22 meters (75 feet) so we will keep hoping that none of the freakish storms which have been growing in number and strength bedevil either of these beloved trees before they reach that kind of height. I wish you could actually see these trees–they are so beautiful!

A magnificent Bald Cypress towering over Weston, West Virginia

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.

Argh! Why, oh why are the nutria's teeth so red?

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).

Another View of the Same Tree

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.

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