If there is an icon of Louisiana, it is the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). It is as Louisiana as pirogues, crawfish or a fais do do on Saturday night.
Bald Cypress is our state tree, and rightly so. It naturally grows and outcompetes other tree species on wet sites. And Louisiana has a lot of wet sites.
Louisiana forms the ultimate delta of the mighty Mississippi and other rivers and bayous, such as the Red, Ouachita, and others, as the waters head for the Gulf through Louisiana. So we have a lot of sites for cypress to grow.
And it does.
Bald cypress is related to the redwood of the West Coast. It is a conifer but is deciduous and loses its needle-like small leaves in fall. It sheds its leaves before most deciduous trees and grows them back later in the spring. Hence the name bald. Cypress is slow growing and long-lived, sometimes hundreds of years old. It has a colorful fall foliage. It is tolerant of variable environmental conditions and is planted on a variety of sites.
Under flooded growing conditions it has a fluted base and knees, a distinctive morphological feature, that grow vertically from the roots. They may provide oxygen to the underwater subsoil roots or just provide support for the tree.
Continuous flooding is stressful for cypress and debilitating for individual trees, as witnessed by stressed cypress in continuously flooded lakes. Seed in cypress balls require bare ground to germinate. So occasional exposed ground is positive for this wet-site species. Cypress frequently grows in association with another wet-site species, water tupelo.
Cypress was important to the settlement of humans in what became Louisiana. The heartwood is naturally decay resistant. This characteristic was important for use by early settlers. Particularly before the advent of chemically treated wood and plastics. American Indians and later European settlers burned or chopped out the middle of half of a felled tree bole to make pirogues.
Early houses, barns, water tanks and even caskets were made of cypress. And cypress remains today an important tree for human use.
When I retired, I had my carport made into my room (I call it my blind). It does not have a feminine touch. I paneled it with cypress. My dark turkey beards and fans show up nicely against the light wood background. Also my tables have a cypress top with the legs made of cypress knees. My mounted ducks are lighting in a cypress swamp. How nice is that.
Bald cypress was, and is, an important tree for wildlife. Old hollow cypress punctuate many of our bayous. The last verified Ivory-billed Woodpeckers inhabited old-growth bottomland hardwoods in Louisiana. I expect they nested in cypress. Today the similar pileated woodpecker carves its nest cavity out of old cypress trees.
Louisiana black bears winter in a torpor in large hollow cypress. Some bats of interest roost in large hollow trees. Fox squirrels eat the seed from cypress balls and nest in hollows and leaf nests.
Several species of birds have special affinities for cypress and its swamp habitat. Prothonotary warblers are a neotropical migrant that nests in cavities and is associated with southern aquatic habitat. Northern parula warblers, another migrant, nest in the Spanish moss that grows in moist habitat hanging from the limbs.
The flat top of old trees are good nest sites for the large bulky nests of bald eagles. I own a cypress swamp in Franklin Parish. A pair of eagles have a large nest in the top of a large hollow cypress. When we duck hunt they seem protective of the nest. They buzz us, then fly back to the nest and do their chirping. Quite entertaining.
Ducks also benefit from cypress aquatic habitat. The most obvious is the wood duck, appropriately named for life in the woods. Wood ducks are here year round, and thrive in flooded forests. They nest in tree cavities, often in cypress. They feed on cypress seed.
Another permanent resident of flooded forest and cavity nester is the hooded merganser. But their culinary qualities don’t measure up, even to a gumbo standard. Other common wintering ducks that are found in flooded forests include: mallards, green-winged teal, and gadwalls. Another species is grouped with the diving ducks, but is found in shallow flooded timber is the ring-necked duck. A host of other aquatic associated species, including coots, grebes, ibises, egrets, etc., also inhabit flooded forest stands.
The most fertile soil in Louisiana is delta soils formed from floodwater deposits. This productive habitat has been mostly converted to agriculture crops, but the interspersing rivers, sloughs and bayous are fringed with bottomland hardwoods. This is the best deer habitat in a sea of agriculture. Louisiana trophy bucks come from bottomland soils.
So, here’s to the bald cypress, Louisiana’s floral icon. It represents us well.
(Dr. James G. Dickson is an award-winning author, researcher, wildlife biologist and professor. USDA FS Southern Research Station Scientist Emeritus, LFA Director Emeritus. Email him at email@example.com)