Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Bald Cypress
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.

Bald 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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