The Story of Louisiana's Bald Cypress Tree and My Experience with Mama Cypress, the Oldest in the United States
As a native of South Louisiana, I’ve had an obsession with cypress trees for as long as I can remember. When I recently visited the largest bald cypress tree in the United States, who I’ll refer to as Mama Cypress, my child-like intrigue grew into a desire to learn and share more about Her and her family.
The Bald Cypress Tree: Louisiana’s Majestic and Riveting Mascot
The Bald Cypress is Louisiana’s state tree, a majestic and riveting mascot. For the sake of credibility, Bald Cypress trees are deciduous conifers, and their needle-like leaves desert them in the fall – every autumn, they go bald.
At the base, Bald Cypresses are grounded and girthy. Cypress knees spring up all around the foundation of the trees, like tiny guards keeping watch over their queen. Even when submerged in water, the knees help the cypress breathe. As the eyes wander higher, offshooting branches grow from all directions. As they age, they change shape and form new trunks, roots, and cavities. Mirroring our grand elders' grey hair, Spanish moss hangs freely from every twig.
Many refer to Bald Cypress as wood eternal because of its resistance to rot and termites. The native people of Louisiana skillfully carved their canoes, or pirogues, out of Bald Cypress trees.
Over 100 years ago, when modern builders discovered its resilience, they began harvesting Bald Cypress to build the newly established French Quarter. They cut down so many Bald Cypress trees that the swamps were almost wiped of them.
In nature’s true fashion, what goes around comes back around. Those who took more than they should’ve quickly discovered that Bald Cypress is highly flammable. This is why so much of the French Quarter burned in its early years.
Today, people rarely harvest Bald Cypress trees for mass consumption due to their rarity and contribution to coastal preservation. Their girthy trunks and vast root systems help prevent erosion of the Louisiana Coast.
The Lore and Legends of the Bald Cypress Tree
Oddly, finding any solid historical resources about the lore and legends of cypress trees has been challenging. Greek mythology will be a major player in alchemizing cypress trees’ lore here.
Grief and tragedy plant the cypress trees in Greek mythology. Kyparissos accidentally killed his beloved stag with a spear. He was so overtaken by grief that he turned into a cypress tree. Many stories of sacrifices to Persephone and Hades occur among groves of cypress trees.
Death goes hand-in-hand with the afterlife. The Greek God of Healing, Asklepios, used a cypress spear for its medicinal qualities and connections to immortality and the spirit realm.
The Symbolism of Bald Cypress Trees
Bald Cypress trees are a reflection of their native Louisianians’ souls. These mystical trees represent resilience, adaptability, strength, longevity, and life cycles. It is no coincidence that cypress trees commonly line the borders of southern cemeteries.
Cypress trees are portals serving as liminal spaces connecting humans to the afterlife and the spirit realm. They are stoic and enigmatic keepers of death and rebirth. Upright and tall, these veils reach to the sky and guard the boundaries between humans and spirits.
Unlike any other species of tree, they thrive in water and repel their natural predators. Time and time again, Bald Cypress trees are tied to endurance through tumult and fearlessly defend individuality.
Visiting Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge and Meeting Mama Cypress
Mama Cypress lives at the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge in St. Francisville, Louisiana – about two hours from my home base in South Louisiana. The refuge lies between the mighty Mississippi River and Bayou Sara. Due to frequent flooding, Mama Cypress is only accessible by foot for half the year – the other half, she is surrounded by swampy water.
Although flooding has a bad reputation to most, it’s carved the unique ridges and swamp land of the area. Some of the region’s only remaining bottomland hardwood forest habitats are preserved at Cat Island because of the eternal flooding. Flooding here is harmonious, producing a protective home for fish, wildlife, and other swamp creatures native to South Louisiana. Cypress trees, like Mama Cypress, grow in their weird, wonky ways because of floods. They are the underrated and waterlogged icons of the swamp.
Mama Cypress is the oldest bald cypress tree in the United States, persevering for 1,000 to 1,200 years. For context, Mama Cypress was a baby when the first Holy Roman Emperor of Europe, Charlemagne, died. What’s really shocking is her stature as the sixth oldest tree in the country.
Her circumference measures 54 feet, and she stands 83 feet tall. I speak from experience when I say there’s nothing like crawling into a tree with plenty of space to spin around on the inside. Alice’s tree has nothing on Mama Cypress – I met this tree, and I became small. I call that nature’s unsolicited shrinking potion.
Lessons from Mama Cypress
Trees are loving secret keepers. When we speak to them, they feel it in their roots – science proves it, and our intuition knows it to be true. Trees are all-seeing, all-listening, and all-knowing but never tell their secrets. You can always trust the trees.
Mama Cypress listened to my secrets and told me to stay resilient. She said to thrive in the throws of a flood and remain grounded, rooted so deep into the dark brown earth that sometimes my lungs fill with the ease and knowing of its hot core.
Even though my roots only touch the surface compared to hers, she believes in my power to tap in. We are in awe of each other, and I like to think every tree feels this way about us humans as long as we try our best to coexist.
These downloads inspired me to illustrate Mama Cypress and pay tribute to her through my talents of drawing and writing. Thank you, Mama Cypress.