Bald Cypress vs. Pond Cypress

As has been previously documented on this blog, I love cypress trees, and visiting the Okefenokee Swamp (see here and here) was a chance to see lots of them.

But my powers of observation must be growing, because while looking at these I noticed something I don’t think I would have a year ago.  The foliage on these cypress trees consisted of needles that stand stiffly upright…

…as opposed to that of the cypress trees here on Jekyll Island, which is feathery and drooping.

Seeing this proved once and for all that The Sibley Guide to Trees was worth purchasing, because I don’t think I would have noticed this if it hadn’t tickled a memory from looking up bald cypress trees in that book and noticing a brief entry on a second type of cypress with erect needles.  Turns out that the cypress trees of Okefenokee are actually pond cypress (or pondcypress, if you’re Sibley, who apparently eschews the space bar as a tool for lesser mortals).

Pond cypress may be a separate species, Taxodium ascendens, or it may just be a variety of bald cypress, T. distichum, depending on who you ask.  In any case, it differs in ecology as well as appearance.  Wikipedia (I know, I know, I know) describes it as occurring in “still blackwater rivers, ponds and swamps without silt-rich flood deposits,” which is a perfect description of the peaty Okefenokee.  Bald cypress, on the other hand, apparently prefers areas with rich silt deposits.

When I stopped to get a photo of the pond cypress needles, my mom immediately said, “For your blog, right?  And then you’ll send it to the tree festival people?”  Yes, Mom, this is indeed my Festival of the Trees submission for this month.  The theme this time around is supposed to be how trees inspire you, and in this case they seem to have inspired me to notice things I wouldn’t otherwise!


A Poem as Lovely as a Tree?

I wrote this a while ago and, in light of the fact that the theme for next month’s edition of Festival of the Trees is “the magic of faerie trees,” decided to share it.  Context about what led me to write this poem can be found in this post.


Cypress Knees

“Mature cypress are seldom seen seen on St. Simons and Sapelo Islands because the few remaining stands are isolated to remote areas and none, to my knowledge, remain on Jekyll.”

-Taylor Schoettle, A Guide to a Georgia Barrier Island, 1996

Around a bend in the trail,
a row of cypress trees.

Many-legged creatures
frozen in mid-step,
marching without motion,
trolls made stone
by sunrise, unaware
that they defy the printed word.
Limbs lift delicate
green glory above
the palmettos.
Roots rise forsaking their
dark hidden homes,
gone topsy-turvy
and ignoring the call of gravity,
standing like the skyline
of an elvish city:
for trees to breathe with
when water rises at their feet.

Trees, like skinks and spiders, care nothing for words in books
or for any words at all.



In Search of Baldcypress

Mature cypress is seldom seen on St. Simons and Sapelo Islands because the few remaining stands are isolated to remote areas, and none, to my knowledge, occur on Jekyll.  Extensive farming, landfilling and logging destroyed most of the cypress habitats.  On the mainland, stands of young, second-growth cypress are commonplace along roadsides and parking areas that border wetlands.

-Taylor Schoettle, A Guide to a Georgia Barrier Island, 1996

This afternoon I spent a little time exploring a forest path I hadn’t investigated yet.  Several coworkers had mentioned that if one keeps going straight instead of taking the right-hand fork that leads to the grandfather tree, the trail eventually leads to a stand of baldcypress trees.  However, in Taylor Schoettle’s guide to the natural history of Jekyll Island he claims there are no cypress trees here (or does he? he never says how he would define a mature cypress), so I was eager to see this for myself.

It was a gorgeous walk whether it led to the alleged baldcypress or not; the trees were filled with palm warblers and black-throated blue warblers.  To an Ohio girl the maritime forest, with its enormous twisting live oaks and and dense jungle-like understory of palmettos, feels incredibly alien, but in a positive way – it feels like somewhere a fairytale could happen.  I started trying to capture some of that atmosphere in photos while I walked, with limited success.

Eventually I rounded a corner and there they were in front of me: a whole row of baldcypress trees with their feathery green foliage and their miniature forests of knees ranged around their trunks like the skyline of some elfin city.

Baldcypress generally grow where there is standing water for at least part of the year (I’ll have to return to this spot in the winter when the weather is wetter).  The theory is that the knees help oxygenate and anchor them.

Just beyond the cypress trees was a clearing, and I discovered that I’d come out right across the street from the dining hall of the environmental education center where I work – which, incidentally, was founded by the author I cited at the beginning of this post as having said there were no cypress trees on the island.  No mature cypress trees.  I suppose these trees were significantly smaller fourteen years ago when that book was written; was he aware of these but simply didn’t consider them mature?  Would he consider them to be mature now?  I’m mean, they’re tree-sized but they’re not exactly enormous.  Could he possibly have overlooked these trees right under his nose?  It seems unlikely, somehow.

In any case, they may not have been here at one point, but baldcypress are definitely alive and well on Jekyll today.