Did you know there are redwoods growing in the Chesapeake? Well, a member of the redwood family, anyway: the bald cypress, Taxodium distichum. Today, we’re at the very northern tip of its range, which extends south into Florida and west into Texas. But in the prehistoric past, the great swamps extended their lush hummocks and tannin-rich water all the way to modern New England. Sometimes the fossilized rounds of these massive primordial stands are uncovered, and the cypress, now stone, is exposed to a sky where the only pterodactyls are made of metal and steel.
Still, there are places throughout the Chesapeake watershed where groves of these ancient plants still thrive, their stabilizing knobby knees protruding from the sepia swamp water. Their frond-like leaves are deciduous, and in the fall, you can identify a bald cypress by its rusty color as the leaves change and its subsequent nakedness as they drop- which is how the bald cypress got its common name.
Bald cypress groves have produced some of the oldest trees existing in North America. Dendrologists dated core samples from a cypress along North Carolina’s Black River back to 364 A.D. With a life span that monumental, these trees take their time growing and reproducing- most specimens don’t produce seeds until they are 30 years old. Once they germinate, bald cypresses rely on the water lapping at their knees to float their seeds to raised marsh hummocks where they pickily refuse to thrive unless there is constant moisture. Born out of water, and thriving on water, bald cypress is famously water and rot resistant, and is referred to in the lumber trade as ‘wood eternal’. These admirable characteristics have made it highly desirable for human use- first by the Chesapeake Indians, who used it to construct their enormous dugout canoes, and later by colonists who fashioned it into ships, shingles, clapboard, water tanks, and coffins. Even the swamps themselves were useful, providing cover for all manner of bootleggers, smugglers, escaped convicts, runaway slaves and other sundry fugitives.
Bald cypresses show a lot of knee. The Victorians would be scandalized!
Today, many ancient cypress swamps have been denuded by lumber mills. However, there are still plenty of places to enjoy a quietly magical paddle around an old cypress grove. The Pocomoke River, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is one of them, but only by the blessing of conservation. By the 1930’s, the cypress swamp was totally deforested and abandoned, cursed by its own utility. At that point, the federal government began purchasing tracts of discarded property in the watershed, and when the state assumed ownership in the 1950’s, the cypresses were just old enough to reproduce. When you see the restored swamp now, the 100-year-old cypresses tower overhead, and below, the water is rich with tannins. On every surface that might contain a thin scrum of nutrients, leafy things emerge.
Bald cypress swamps are cradles for all sorts of life- otters, muskrats, salamander, owls, floating and submerged plants cling to the cypress knees.Their bark bristles with lichen, and spanish moss drifts from the canopy. Entering these watery forests, you feel like you’re rejoining the food chain- and not necessarily as the one at the top.