CYPRESS

Down in Camp Salmen’s Bayou Liberty swamp are some mighty fine specimens of Louisiana’s legendary Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). The tree gets its odd name from the small bald spots on top of their “knees” sprouting from the ground around them. Some botanists have called these knees “pneumatophores” and imagine they somehow suck air into the tree’s submerged roots. Other botanists say, “Pshaw, nothing could be further from the truth.” They’ve used sensitive oxygen detection equipment to determine no such consumption occurs. They also point out that cutting off all of a tree’s knees does not appear to affect its health.

 

Cypress once covered vast wetlands in Louisiana and the southeastern U.S. They were extensively harvested in the late 1800s and early 1900s for their magnificent, rot resistant wood used in construction. Additionally, much of their wetland habitat was converted to farmland until only a fraction of this primeval forest was left. The wood is still considered so valuable for furniture and architectural details that people make a living today dredging up lost, sunken cypress from river bottoms or salvaging cypress timbers from demolished century-old warehouses and factories.

 

Not too many trees can grow in the wet, muddy places a cypress can. Where the Pearl and Atchafalaya River deltas are steadily growing into the marshes downstream, cypress and black willow are the first trees to colonize the slowly emerging river bank. Other tree species don’t even try and wait until the riverbank is older and more solid.

 

In spite of the many cypress you may have seen growing out of water away from a river bank or lake shore, be assured the tree did not start that way. It is not possible for a young cypress to sprout underwater and can only sprout on land. For the base of the tree to end up underwater means the ground has sunk or the water has come up or both.

 

A mature cypress can attain a striking, idealized form but, depending on conditions, some grow into deformed, bizarre shapes. They can grow around objects, grow into each other and keep growing after a grievous wounding. They die hard, having their tops lopped off by storms or their centers hollowed out by disease or fire and yet live on. Even the State of Louisiana’s record tree in the bottom lands above St. Francisville is a grotesque, stunted, misshapen thing. It’s so hollowed out you can easily stand in it and is, by golly, wider than a house. It is still alive and thus, has gained the title.

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