My ongoing fascination with all things old and historic was piqued last weekend by something that seemed highly unusual.
While attending a nice outdoor gathering Saturday night featuring a warm fire in a pit, good company, good food, a little live music and more, myself and a couple other people took notice of a nearby tree. Call it a collective double-take, but it was like, “what in the Sam Hill is that thing?”
Upon closer examination, the conclusion reached was it was a bald cypress – and a really, really big one at that. I was particularly excited about the “discovery,” having recently been in close proximity to thousands of cypress trees while enjoying boat tours at swamps in Louisiana Cajun Country.
Bald cypress (taxodium distichum) is a deciduous conifer commonly found in completely or partially saturated areas of the U.S. Southeast and Gulf Coast (conifers are cone-bearing trees and deciduous versions shed their needles in the fall). But it is also known to do well in much drier locales and grow in sizable numbers in several mid-Atlantic states.
Cypress trees aren’t plentiful in Missouri, but do exist in a couple of wetlands in the Bootheel. Their versatility and adaptability is highlighted by the fact the University of Missouri Extension dedicates almost an entire Web page to recommending cypress as a “shade tree” in Show-Me State landscaping projects, indicating they have a maximum height of 100 feet, grow pretty fast and are highly resistant to insect pests and disease problems.
Standing under this big old beauty soon brought up the question, how did it get there?
Surely, the tree in question has been where it is for a long, long time – perhaps well in excess of 100 years. Its base is massive and its limbs are long and thick and it likely predates an adjacent pond by a long shot.
Somewhere among the decades, it probably took a hit from lightning or some other naturally destructive force, as it’s split part way up its trunk and appears to missing a lot of its top, making it look like an overgrown bonsai tree.
With regard to the venerable giant’s origin, I came up with a few speculative answers.
Maybe a family of descendants of French Acadians (a.k.a Cajuns) moved from Louisiana to Missouri and a little girl couldn’t stand the idea of not having her favorite big cypress to sit under, so she put a sapling in one of her mom’s good china bowls, brought it north and planted it in the soggy soil in the “bottoms” of her family’s new property.
Maybe the man of the family hoped to grow a supply of rot and bug resistant wood he could use for projects at his new place.
Maybe a cypress cone fell off of a buckboard wagon, was squished into some wet ground and seized the opportunity to proliferate.
Or maybe a member of a flock of snow geese 800 strong heading north for the summer dropped a bit of growth medium in exactly the right way in exactly the right spot, and the result still stands all these years later.
Of course, we’ll never know, but I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot of history stowed away inside what might be Texas County’s oldest (and only) bald cypress.
Let me know if you know where any others are – especially if they’re obviously very old.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.