Towering over coffee-colored waters, a majestic tree, the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), dominates isolated swamps of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Although more common to swamps in the Southeast, stands of bald cypress can still be found in parts of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, where it inhabits areas too wet for many other trees, catching attention with its odd knobby “knees” and buttressed trunk.
Although it is a member of the redwood family and has needles and cones, the bald cypress is not an evergreen. This deciduous tree’s needles turn brown in autumn and fall off by winter, and is the source of its common name, bald cypress.
Its featherlike appearance is produced by flattened needles. The reddish brown to gray bark is stringy and flakes away from wood, peeling off in strips. Flowers are borne on round cones.
Growing up to 150 feet high, very old bald cypress trees may reach a diameter of 10 feet or more. More often, though, they approach 120 feet high and 3–5 feet in diameter.
Adapted to swamp life, bald cypress trunks widen at the base to provide additional support in the soft, wet soil. Shallow roots spread out from the base of the trunk. Where water stands during part of the year, roots develop into elongated “knees” that grow above the mud and correspond to the high-water level. The knees help to anchor the tree. Hollow, the knees usually die if the water is permanently drained.
Because they do not produce seeds every year, bald cypress trees must be long-lived to reproduce. Conditions must be just right for a seed to develop into a tree. Seeds must set down on a hummock, a knoll of land that remains moist, but not flooded, for three to five years before the sprout can grow into a thriving seedling. Seeds are dispersed by wind and water.
Bald cypress wood is valued for both interior and exterior building materials. The heartwood is durable even when it comes in contact with the soil or is exposed to the elements. Bald cypress wood is also very resistant to most insects and rot. Because of the wood’s durability, large tracts of cypress swamps, from Virginia south to Texas, have been logged.
Bald cypress often share the swampy landscape with other water-tolerant tree species such as black gum, sweet gum, red maple, and a variety of oaks and hickories. In the understory, look for persimmon, sweet pepper bush, swamp azalea and southern arrowwood. Lichens and mosses may add a soft coat to trunks and logs. Open water supports both floating and submerged plants
These forested swamps provide homes for wading birds, like herons and egrets, and waterfowl. Many songbirds, like the Kentucky warbler, hooded warbler, prothonotary warbler, yellow-throated warbler, ovenbird, Louisiana waterthrush and yellow-breasted chat, depend on these swamps for migratory and breeding habitat. Cavity nesters, like wood ducks, woodpeckers and owls, are right at home here.
Temporary pools are excellent breeding grounds for frogs, toads and salamanders. Snakes and turtles take advantage of both aquatic and terrestrial environments. Even fish find both food and refuge among the twisted submerged roots. Muskrat, raccoons and otter are a few of the mammals that live in these forested wetlands. Seeds are eaten by wild turkey, wood ducks, evening grosbeak, wading birds, waterfowl and squirrels.
Bald cypress swamps, like other types of wetlands, play an important role in the landscape. Their floodplains help to disperse and slowly release floodwater. In addition, they trap sediments and other pollutants, improving the health of nearby rivers.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed still supports some of these unique bald cypress swamps. Explore and enjoy!