Today I went to look for the bald cypress tree in Leu Gardens as I had picked up a little cone to draw a few days ago and wanted to make sure it was what I thought it was. The day was humid, dull and very still, one of those swampy listless days that make you feel that everything is too much effort. The snakes though seemed to be in their element. I don’t usually see many but today I saw four, 3 black racers and this beautiful harmless Garter Snake. I have read that if a snake has longitudinal stripes as opposed to bands they are harmless. If they have diamonds or bands get out of their way. I treat them all with great respect.
Down by the lake, which like everything else today, was torpid and still, I found a nice big bald cypress. These are lofty trees and normally the leaves are well out of my reach but a low growing branch enabled me to take a photo of some new cones and leaves with odd little yellow flower like things on them which I think are a sort of gall, (but after hours of research I am none the wiser.)
The Bald Cypress Taxodium distichum is a common tree here and likes the fringes of lakes where you can see the knobbly knees which I drew some time ago here. Also called the swamp cypress or southern cypress, it is actually a member of the giant redwood family and not a true cypress at all.
It is another ancient and beautiful tree, living it is said for up to 1500 years and attaining a height of over 100 feet, although I must say they do look pretty miserable in the winter when the needles turn red and fall, leaving it very bald indeed. At the moment they are bright green with new growth.
But they do have an atmosphere, these old tall trees. Perhaps it is because they are so associated with swamps, heat and the mysterious and eerie landscapes of South, with those huge walking mangroves, trees with lichen covered branches and impossibly convoluted root structures and these cypress trees with their huge buttressed trunks, dripping with Spanish moss keeping silent vigil beside black still waters.
Silent, that is, unless they happen to be the roost of some very noisy egrets.
Its resistance to water earned the bald cypress the name of “the eternal wood” and because it was such a useful tree the once vast stands of cypress in Florida were cleared almost to extinction. It does have a powerful regenerative streak though. In these stormy times it is interesting to note that if a bald cypress is struck by lightening it will explode, shattering into many sharp splintering pieces which are hurled into the air with huge force. Despite the destruction this sturdy tree doesn’t die but regenerates from the existing trunk. However it sounds like a tree not to be standing under unless you wish to be sliced like a cucumber in a mandolin.
Image from Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture here
While I was researching this tree I came across this lovely John Catesby print, of the Carolina Parakeet. It shows the bald cypress complete with cones and the rather perky parakeet. I had written about Catesby before in connection with his drawing of the now extinct passenger pigeon. (see post re Amazing Rare Things exhibition here)
Sadly this pretty little bird went the same way. It was Americas only indigenous parakeet. The bald cypress was its favorite nesting tree and it fed on the ripe cones in the autumn. I think if I were a bird in those days I would have politely declined any offer from Catesby to paint my portrait.The little cone I have drawn is a gorgeous thing, a tightly packed sphere, every separate scale piece fitting so perfectly together. This one was an old one, brown and cracked but I also found some new green ones.. you have to be quick to get there before the squirrels.