One of the most magnificent trees of the Southern swamps and bayous is the cypress tree with its large diameters, its towering branches and its knees sticking up out of the water. Technically, this tree is officially called baldcypress (Taxodium distichum). Common names include baldcypress, pond cypress (a special variety found in Florida), tidewater cypress (lumber from pond cypress tree), and sinker cypress. Cypress, when grown in wet conditions, produces roundish, several inches in diameter, extensions of the root system that will protrude vertically many feet into the air. These leafless protrusions are called "knees" and apparently help the roots obtain oxygen, even though the tree roots are submerged.
Cypress grows in wet sites from Delaware, along the coastal areas through Florida to Texas and up the Mississippi River Valley. Trees often will be more than 500 years old, with diameters being many feet. However, the large trees that are centuries old (called "old growth") are now rare and much of the cypress harvested today is "second-growth." There is also an active supply of old growth cypress that has been salvaged from earlier construction projects. There are also some firms that are harvesting century-old logs from the bottom of lake and rivers to provide excellent wood. During the mid-1900s, with an active program to drain swamps and bayous, reproduction of cypress trees was great affected; volumes of good timber today are small, but restoration of wetlands is encouraging more growth.
Although cypress is a conifer with needles for leaves, it does loose it needles every year in the winter. The wood itself is noted for very high natural insect and decay resistance, especially the "old growth" material; second growth does not have this same high level of natural protection, but still provides good protection from insects and decay. The natural preservative is a chemical called cypressene.
Cypress sometimes, while growing, is infected by a white fungus that leaves white pockets of rot. Although the fungus dies when the log is sawn into lumber and dried, the resulting wood with its small (approximately 3/8-inch diameter and 1 inch long) holes, is termed "pecky cypress" and is highly desired due to the beautiful characteristics.
In the past, cypress has been used in outside locations for piers, docks, stadium seats, greenhouse construction, caskets, porches, boats and ship construction, shingles, cooperage and outdoor furniture. Over 100 years ago enormous dugout canoes of cypress carried 20 to 30 Native Americans on trading voyages across the Straits of Florida to Cuba . Cypress is also called "eternal wood" because it lasted so long; hollowed logs installed in 1798 as water pipes were still working in 1914 when they were replaced and shingles have been found that are over 250 years old.
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