Sunday, October 24, 2021

Exploring Florida’s Tropical Trees

Growing Up Everglades City

When you’re visiting the Everglades, many will see its never-ending sawgrass and toothy alligators, but some of the most beautiful and intriguing flora and fauna of this area are the trees. Ranging from swaying palm trees to tall pines, and even our well-known mangroves, each tree that grows here is unique and important to the land and its surroundings. One of my personal favorites that never ceases to amaze me when I see one is cypress trees. 

You may recognize the name from Big Cypress National Preserve that is located right beside Everglades City where the many creatures of the Everglades live; heard it in the line from John Anderson’s song “Seminole Wind,” or you’ve probably seen a tree for yourself. There are two types of cypress trees that grow in the Southeast region of the United States—the pond cypress and the bald cypress. In the Everglades, we have both! Pond cypress and bald cypress are both known for their root extensions referred to as “knees” and their ability to tolerate wet sites. Cypress “knees” are associated with trees that grow on wet sites since they are less likely to appear when grown on a drier site. 

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) are more distinctive out of the two. You can spot one just by looking at the bottom of the trunk as it begins to flare out in the water and is accompanied by many little “knees.” Their bark is brownish-gray in color and forms scaly, tough ridges around the trunk. These ridges start to peel off in strips over time, giving it the name “bald” cypress. They can grow up to 120 feet in height with their trunks ranging from 3 to 6 feet in diameter. Only a few of these trees can grow up to 150 feet in height. There was one that grew up to 165 feet in Florida known as “The Senator,” but it was damaged by a hurricane in 1925 and eventually was destroyed by a fire in 2012. 

Instead of producing leaves, the bald cypress produces green waxy needles that are soft to the touch and grow new every spring after falling off during autumn. The “knees” produced from a bald cypress are like that because of the lack of oxygen that is available to its roots. The submerged root system grows pointed structures in order to provide oxygen to the tree as well as to stabilize it in the soft soil. These trees are capable of surviving both severe drought and severe flooding. A bald cypress’s growth rate is slow as they grow about 4 feet in height per year. To reach an adult height, which is around 40 to 50 feet, it will take a bald cypress 15 to 25 years. They grow quicker in sunny, well-drained and moist soil compared to shady swamp environments. The larger cypresses will take numerous decades of growth to reach their soaring heights. “The Senator,” before it was destroyed, was thought to have been around 3,500 years old.

Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens) is found on the edge of swamps where water stands but can also grow well in drier landscapes. These trees range in the Southeast from the swamps of Louisiana up to the state of Virginia. Pond cypress can grow up to 80 feet and are relatively smaller than the bald cypress. Their branches are upward-angled, and their needles are flatter and scale-like. If they produce “knees” they are more round and shorter than the knees produced by the bald cypress.

I like to walk on the many boardwalks here in the Everglades to look at the bald cypresses. Their knees poke out of the swampy waters and are minuscule compared to its host that towers high towards the clouds and into the blue skies. Some of them are close enough to you on the boardwalks that you can wrap your arms around them. I always like to give them a hug to show my appreciation of their beauty and my love for the flora and fauna of the Everglades. Make sure to keep your eye out for these beauties when visiting! 

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