Sometimes I think sap runs through my veins instead of blood. As a passionate tree lover, I'm thrilled to live in North Carolina where so many different species of trees affect me differently through the seasons. During the dog days of summer there's nothing I like better than hiking through the cool, aromatic spruce-fir forests cloaking our highest elevations-even if only remnants of the original ecosystem remain. In spring, plop me down in a longleaf pine savanna, where the morning dew glistens on the wiregrass that carpets the ground beneath North Carolina's official state tree. In November, there's nowhere in the world I'd rather be than in eastern North Carolina taking pictures of baldcypress trees.
Through a nature photographer's eyes, there is no finer scene than that of a huge old-growth baldcypress tree standing proud in a blackwater swamp. Festooned with long flowing strands of Spanish moss, turtles basking on its "knees", songbirds singing from its branches, the stately baldcypress epitomizes the Old South. Despite more than four centuries of swamp draining and logging, places remain in North Carolina where you can lose yourself both figuratively and literally in a setting little changed since the first colonists disembarked on Roanoke Island. In the cooler November weather when cypress needles turn a beautiful reddish brown, I could stay lost for days in one of these cypress swamps.
Despite its name, the baldcypress tree, Taxodium distichum, is not a true cypress, which comprises the genus Cupressus, but is a deciduous conifer related to the redwoods of the west coast. True cypresses do not grow naturally in North Carolina, although the term cypress is used interchangeably with baldcypress when referring to T. distichum. As a deciduous tree, baldcypress loses its needles in winter, hence the "bald" moniker. Cypress grows in wet swampy areas and often in standing water. The base of the trunk typically grows as a swollen, ridged buttress, which helps the tree stay put in the wet soil. A peculiar feature of the tree is the cone-shaped "knees", which protrude above the surface of the water from a series of submerged roots surrounding the trunk. Various theories have been proposed for the purpose of these knees-as an organ for aeration, to help anchor the tree-but scientists can't say for certain what function they serve. Old-growth cypress trees grow to well over 100 feet tall. You can recognize them easily by their large, flat-topped crowns. Pond cypress is a variety of baldcypress that may be difficult or impossible to distinguish. In general conversation most people do not attempt a distinction and simply refer to all cypress trees as baldcypress or simply cypress.
Were the baldcypress merely a magnificent tree to observe it would hold its place on my list of favorite trees. But the cypress' beauty is more than bark deep. The tree has a rich natural and cultural history. For more than four millennia, cypress trees have played a significant role in the lives of humans. In the fall of 1985, a remarkable discovery was made at Lake Phelps in Washington County. During a period of unusually low water levels in this already shallow lake, a number of Indian artifacts were discovered in the lake bed. Among them were some 30 dugout canoes, the oldest of which dates back nearly 4,500 years! To make these canoes, Indians split a good-sized cypress log and started a fire on the flat surface. Alternately burning and scraping the charred wood left a hull-a natural, solid, ingeniously practical vessel for transportation along eastern North Carolina's waterways. Cypress wood was an ideal choice for these canoes for several reasons. The trees grew to the large sizes needed for some of the biggest boats; they grew close to (often in) the waterways in which the canoe would be used-a particularly functional benefit considering the enormous weight of the vessels and the extremely difficult task of portaging; and old-growth cypress is one of the more decay-resistant trees in existence.
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The canoes discovered at Lake Phelps range in age from around 2430 B.C. to about 1200 A.D. However, Native Americans as well as Europeans continued to use cypress vessels much later in history. In his 1709 book A New Voyage To Carolina, John Lawson wrote of the "Ciprus-Trees [Sic], of which the French make Canoes that will carry fifty or sixty barrels." Lawson described other uses of the cypress tree, such as the Indians' use of the bark as a rain cover for the bodies of the deceased during preparation for interment and as siding for their cabins. Shipped to England by John Tradescant in 1637, the baldcypress was one of the first New World species introduced to Europe.
During the colonial period, the cypress tree became a valuable commodity. Cypress knees worked well for some of the curved parts of wooden sailing ships and the long-lasting wood made great fence posts and lumber for all manner of construction purposes. But the greatest industry by far was in the manufacture of shingles. Cypress trees, along with Atlantic white cedar, were cut with abandon from North Carolina swamps to produce siding and roofing shingles that were shipped across the country. Logging companies operated from numerous locations in eastern North Carolina. George Washington founded one company prior to the Revolutionary War. It operated in Great Dismal Swamp straddling Virginia and North Carolina. By the start of the Civil War, the company averaged shipping a million and a half shingles a year. Washington himself was a customer. A section of Mt. Vernon's roof is sheathed in cypress shingles obtained from Dismal Swamp trees.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century and continuing into the first half of the twentieth, logging in eastern North Carolina's forests and cypress swamps increased drastically. Most of the state's old-growth cypress trees were felled. These old trees had high concentrations of a chemical called cypressene, believed to be what gives the cypress its remarkable decay resistance. Most of the second-growth trees logged today have not built up enough of this chemical to provide the decay resistance of the older trees, although you probably won't hear anything about this from the folks at the lumberyard.
A relatively recent venture involving the cypress trees is the ever-expanding mulch industry. Cypress mulch is espoused by the industry as providing superior decay and termite resistance, but that is only true for mulch made from old-growth trees that have high concentrations of cypressene. Most of the mulch sold today comes from much younger trees. To support the industry, entire stands of cypress trees are cut, regardless of the size of the trees. The abandoned, clear-cut land is highly prone to invasion from exotic species. Oftentimes, the land is planted in pine plantations or drained for development. In either case, the cypress forest is lost forever and the homeowner is left with inferior mulch.
The history and current state of cypress logging in eastern North Carolina notwithstanding, some impressive trees and forests remain. And I'm talking really impressive! Somewhere tucked in the heart of Three Sisters Swamp along Black River in Pender County, a cypress tree sports a small metal tag bearing the numbers BLK69. If you happen to find this tree while canoeing the Black-an adventure I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone wishing to see what an old-growth cypress swamp really looks like-pause for a moment and consider that this tree germinated around the time Constantine The Great established Constantinople. Yep, this tree is well over 1,600 years old, officially making it the oldest living thing known in the eastern United States. Now look around you. Dr. David Stahle, the University of Arkansas scientist who dated the tree believes that there are other trees on the Black that were here when Christ walked the earth! (A Florida baldcypress tree known as "The Senator" is often reputed to be over 3,000 years old, but there has never been an official assessment of its age and most scientists believe it to be much younger.)
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In Pettigrew State Park, home of Lake Phelps, you can hike the Moccasin Trail through an old-growth forest where impressive trees of several species grow, including baldcypress. One cypress tree, nicknamed "Lake Phelps Monster" by park superintendent Sid Shearin, stands 120 feet tall and has a base 10 feet in diameter. A 350-foot boardwalk at the end of Moccasin Trail provides one of the best places in the state to get an up-close view of a cypress swamp. It's a great location for taking photographs.
For quintessential baldcypress scenery, perhaps the finest location in North Carolina is Merchants Millpond State Park in the northeastern section of the state. The millpond is not natural, having been dammed early in the nineteenth century to create water power for a mill. But natural or not, Merchants Millpond is gorgeous. It's the type of scenery you think about when you envision a southern swamp-dark water studded with lily pads, magnificent cypress trees wearing robes of Spanish moss, arranged as if positioned by a painter or landscape photographer. This is what a swamp is supposed to look like. And you don't have to get on the water to experience Merchants Millpond. Several miles of hiking trails wind through the forest along the pond's shore.
Black River, Lake Phelps, and Merchants Millpond offer wonderful opportunities for viewing cypress trees and making photos, but the truth is you don't have to go anywhere special. Truly old-growth trees and pristine swamps may be rare, but baldcypress is a common tree all across eastern North Carolina. Drive the back roads, slowing down and looking out when you cross creeks or pass by swampy areas. You'll see cypress trees. And I'm betting that whether sap or blood flows through your veins, pretty soon you'll fall in love with the baldcypress.