Nature Bulletin No. 439-A January 8, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
A row of young Bald Cypress Trees, near the edge of the water at the
east shore of McGinnis Slough in our Palos forest preserves are thriving
although they are hundreds of miles north of their natural range. The
Bald Cypress is so-named to distinguish it from the evergreen true
cypresses in other parts of the world. Each autumn its leaves turn brown
and are shed, along with most of the smaller twigs .
Only three other members of the cone-bearing tree families are bare in
winter; the native Tamarack or American Larch, the European Larch,
and the Metasequoia or Dawn Redwood native in China. The tamarack
reaches the southern limit of its range in northern Indiana and
northeastern Illinois. The bald cypress extends only as far north as
southern Illinois and southern Indiana.
cypress used to be the dominant tree in coastal swamps and river
bottomlands from Delaware to Florida to Texas and up the Mississippi
valley to Cairo and the Wabash River. Those cypress swamps were
awesome places -- silent, weird and treacherous with gnome-like
"knees" rising above the dark leafy canopy far above. In the south the
trees were festooned with funereal streams of Spanish moss. Now
cypress is on its way out as a timber crop because of excessive cutting
and drainage of the swamp lands. Most of the remaining fine stands are
in South Carolina and Florida.
Cypress will do well on land but best in stagnant water. Mature trees
may be 120 or even 150 feet tall, with a trunk diameter of from 3 to 5
feet above a flaring buttressed base. Some trees, over 1000 years old,
had trunk diameters of 12 feet or more. Long snake-like roots extend far
out from the swollen base to give the tree support in soft swamp mud.
The cypress is unique because its many submerged roots send up
spongy or hollow woody cones, called "knees ", which usually reach to
high-water level -- often several feet -- and these are supposed to
furnish air to the roots, as well as additional anchorage for the trees.
They do not form when a cypress grows on dry land.
The pollen-bearing flowers are in purplish tassel-like clusters from 3 to
6 inches long. The female flowers are followed by cones that look like
little one-inch woody balls covered with loosely fitting scales.
Cypress has been called "The Wood Eternal" because of its exceptional
durability in soil or water or when exposed to the weather. It is in great
demand for water tanks, silos, boats, shingles, greenhouse frames,
kitchen drainboards and coffins -- to name just a few uses. The wood is
pale brown or reddish, straight-grained and easily worked. The tree is
remarkably free from insect pests but is subject to a heart-rot fungus
that fills the wood with holes. Such logs produce the "pecky" cypress
that is so much in demand for paneling "rumpus rooms", dens and such.
The Montezuma cypresses of Mexico are also survivors of those that
covered the northern hemisphere, then tropical, the Age of Dinosaurs.
There are a few that, along with the Sequoias of California, may be the
oldest living things on earth -- 3000 or more years old. One of the most
famous is the "Tree of the Sorrowful Night", under which Cortes wept
in 1520 after he had lost most of his men in battle.
The cypress has always been a symbol of sadness and mourning.
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Update: June 2012