Bald cypress, a tree for the ages Ancient: The Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland are the northern limits for a tree that lives about 2,000 years.

On the Bay

February 09, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

JUST HOW impressive a tree is the bald cypress, which hTC reaches its northern limits on a few favored rivers of the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland?

Certainly one would not compare it to the national champion Wye Oak, which has a girth of some 32 feet and is pushing five centuries.

No. Cypress gets bigger and lives longer -- maybe up to 2,000 years. One must go to the redwoods, sequoias and Douglas firs of the West Coast to find more massive and long-lived species.

Cypress for ages was widespread across what is now the Maryland landscape. In Choptank River muds near Cambridge, 35,000-year-old logs have been found.

Remnants of an ancient cypress forest dredged from the Inner Harbor and stumps 10 feet across off Bodkin Point at the Patapsco's mouth are thought to be 100,000 years old, as are similar specimens unearthed in excavating for Washington's Mayflower Hotel.

A cypress dug from a Prince George's County gravel pit in 1986 was dated between 4 and 7 million years old; and fossil deposits show cypress-like trees were growing near Bladensburg 120 million years ago.

My new cypress expertise is the product of a couple of pleasurable days afield with John Value Dennis of Princess Anne, a naturalist who, at 79, kept me and my teen-age daughter walking as hard as we could go.

Mr. Dennis' family goes back on the lower Shore some 350 years -- as long, perhaps, as some of the big cypress trees around the swamps and headwaters bogs of the Pocomoke River.

Several generations of Dennises prospered, in part, by cutting and shipping the great stands of cypress. They built a magnificent manor home on the Pocomoke's banks called Beverly.

The manor, not owned by his family since the Depression, Mr. Dennis says, is identified from the river by a serpentine brick bulkhead several hundred feet long and by old cypress trees that were growing tall at the time of the American Revolution.

Mr. Dennis "avoided law, the family occupation," to become an ornithologist. Fittingly, he has brought the family's long-standing association with cypress full circle from cutting to conservation, with his fine book, "The Great Cypress Swamps" (Louisiana State University Press, 1988).

The book is about much more than one type of tree; one suspects the noble cypress was merely an entry point for indulging a lifelong passion for swamps, loosely defined by the author as wetland areas where forested acreage exceeds areas of open land.

But it is intriguing how synonymous the cypress strongholds are with our best known swamps: Georgia's Okefenokee, Virginia's Great Dismal, the Big Cypress of Florida and the Big Thicket of Texas.

One lesser known to Easterners, chronicled in the book, is Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, where residents around 1900 successfully rebelled against developers' ditching and drainage attempts, ultimately lynching one of them.

The Delmarva has the Pocomoke cypress swamp, extending through Somerset and Worcester counties into Sussex County, Del. This was once a world-class cypress forest. The Great Cypress Swamp of lower Delaware covered in excess of 50,000 acres before decades of timbering, and a fire in 1930 that raged for eight months, reduced it to a remnant of its glory.

I had always thought of that epic firing of the great swamp as an anomaly, but according to Mr. Dennis' book, it was unusual only in its duration.

The size and longevity of the bald cypress (to 140 feet high, 40 feet around and at least 1,200 years documented for some living trees) belie the fact that it is an early colonizer, dependent on lightning fires, hurricanes or other disturbances to give it space and light to regenerate.

Where mature stands of the species exist, almost no young cypress are coming up on the Pocomoke. It is not endangered, given that existing trees, if protected, will live several more centuries; also bald cypress will flourish almost anywhere it is planted (several grow in the median of U.S. 13 south of Salisbury).

On the other hand, cypress only reproduces naturally under exacting conditions, in the flood-plain muds of river systems like the Pocomoke. (Why it does not occur more widely in likely-looking swamps of the Nanticoke and Wicomico is a mystery to Mr. Dennis.)

A key agent that helped cypress spread to areas favorable for new growth no longer exists. The Carolina parakeet, a bird that fed on the seed pods, passing them through its digestive tract wherever it flew, has been extinct for some 70 years. It is likely the wood duck still helps the cypress this way.

The bald cypress is a tree for all seasons -- feathery green foliage in spring and summer, glowing cinnamon and auburn in the sharp-slanted autumn sunlight; its habit of shedding both needles and twigs in winter imparts an elegant simplicity of form. It needs no press agent.

But as for the swamps that nurture it, Mr. Dennis, who has trekked such places most of his life, thinks they get a bad rap:

"Swamps are warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. The mosquitoes are fewer than people think, and I've never been bitten by a snake in one."

It was in a cypress swamp in Texas, in 1966, that Mr. Dennis became one of the last people to sight an ivory bill, a giant woodpecker so rare it has been widely considered extinct for half a century now.

He believes cypress swamps in the South may yet harbor a few of the elusive birds, which must remain a story for another column.

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