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Fourche Creek Information

Bald Cypress Trees: Grandfathers of the Wetlands

Bald Cypress are known for their lacy, pale-green leaves and the woody "knees" that are commonly believed to provide oxygen to the tree's roots when they become submerged in swampy conditions. In an unusual attribute for needle-bearing trees, the trees lose all their needles in the winter, thus the “bald” aspect of their name.

The bald cypress, while not endangered, is threatened in areas of the South and is completely gone in places up north. This can be attributed to two major factors: money and money.

Lumber from Bald Cypress is priced at a premium because it is sturdy, impervious to insects, and does not rot--which might be expected of a tree that often spends much of its life with its roots in water. Most of the really big Bald Cypresses were logged out across their range; giant 500-year-old specimens with diameters of ten feet or more were still being destroyed in the late 1970’s until the destruction was stopped.

The fruit of the Bald Cypress is a hard, pear-shaped cone that turns brown and becomes woody as it matures. Not many animals can open the tough fruit, so the vast majority of Bald Cypress cones fall to the ground beneath the tree that produced them--exactly where a seedling has little chance competing against its parent for sunlight in some dimly lit swamp, although some manage to float away and germinate on another shore.

Until the early 1900's, there was a natural solution to the conundrum of long-distance dissemination: the Carolina Parakeet. This colorful dove-sized bird had a hooked bill strong enough to open Bald Cypress cones, and it spread the trees' seeds far and wide in its droppings.

Unfortunately, people and parakeets had major conflicts because the birds foraged on orchards and corn crops, so to protect their livelihood farmers systematically destroyed local congregations of Carolina Parakeets. A sizable number of individuals also were captured as cage-birds or killed for feathers to adorn ladies' hats. By the mid-1850's, John James Audubon was already reporting an alarming decline in parakeet numbers, and in 1900 there were no more free-flying flocks big enough to maintain the species. When the last Carolina Parakeet died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo, there were no birds left to disseminate Bald Cypress seeds beyond the swamp.

Cypresses, for all that they’ve got going against them, are a hardy, slow growing, resilient tree. Here is a specimen we found not 100 yards from the interstate and a trucking company. At one point a dock had been built next to the tree, but over the years the root system has grown around the structure, destroying it.

Here is another tree found just south of Interstate Park just off of Arch Street. It was large enough for a person to sit in, and completely surrounded by forest. The really amazing part was that we could still hear city traffic and people, but could not see anything. This tree is probably around 300 years old.

As mentioned above, another distinctive feature of the Bald Cypress is the growth of knobby “knees” around the base of the tree. These knees can be as tall as a man, and very large around. This group of knees was one of the largest we have encountered.

Also, while in the area south of Interstate Park, we came across this monster Bald Cypress; the lack of any smaller trees near the base is evidence of how much water and nutrients this particular tree was taking up. Johnnie, who is six feet tall, is demonstrating just how wide this tree is.

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