Last year, during a visit to Trap Pond State Park in Laurel, Delaware, I first became aware of bald cypress trees by peeking through the brush at the pond's edge. There were mature trees with knobby roots growing in the middle of the pond! Fascinated, I took a few shots with my camera. That's when a friend explained to me that I was looking out over what was once a fantastic swamp full of very old, very large bald cypress trees.
Since that time, I began to dig around on the Internet for more information about the bald cypress tree. The first thing I learned is the reason for the name "Bald Cypress": This cypress is a deciduous conifer, losing its leaves in the winter like the deciduous trees do. Therefore, it is bald until springtime when it sprouts lightly-colored green needles that loan a uniqueness to the landscape.
My images do not do justice to this magnificent tree. There are many good pictures and solid facts about the bald cypress tree readily available on the Internet and at state parks where this tree grows. Therefore, the focus of this article is to share how the bald cypress tree has fared in Delaware. What is its history here in the First State? And what happened to reduce the majestic swamp filled with giant, ancient trees to a quiet little park?
These are the questions which drove my search for information. It didn't take long to find a local history book online filled with accounts of scientists who explored the Great Swamp in Sussex County, Delaware in previous centuries. This book is entitiled A Natural History of the Pocomoke River Watershed with Special Reference to its Wetlands. It was written by William S. Sipple in 1994 and is readily available as a PDF download for those interested in the natural history of these local areas.
The Pocomoke River watershed is the focus of the book. This is a river system that is primarily located in Maryland but begins in Delaware. In former times, both the Pocomoke Swamp in Maryland and the Great Cypress Swamp in Delaware were forboding places that only the bravest surveyors, botanists, and zoologists dared to enter.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Great Cypress Swamp was harvested for cypress wood and then suffered from not one, but two disastrous fires. The first occurred in 1782. The second fire happened about 150 years later in 1931 and burned for several months. From that point in time, the Great Cypress Swamp began to be called the "Burnt Swamp".
The trees that can be seen today are a younger generation of those trees of past centuries. None of the centuries-old bald cypress trees are left. However, it it were not for the fires, those old trees would be standing. A bald cypress can live to be several hundred years old and can grow to be nine feet or more in diameter.
It stands to reason that a tree that thrives with its feet in the water is also a tree that is rot-resistant. Such a tree makes terrific wood for boats and other structures that stay wet. A booming logging industry took place in earlier centuries that not only toppled the standing trees but also mined those trees that were submerged in the mud under the pond. In addition to the harvesting of Delaware's bald cypress trees and the two devastating fires, a canal was dug in 1936 that drained the swamp. This was before we understood and appreciated the role of natural wetlands. The Great Cypress Swamp became dry. All of these activities led to the Great Cypress Swamp's decline.
In 2009, restoration efforts began as scientists sought to bring the Great Cypress Swamp back to a more natural state. A fascinating account of the Great Cypress Swamp's history and the importance of its restoration can be found in a 2004 Bay Journal article written by Dr. Kent Mountford.
A recent article by Ducks Unlimited shows a picture of equipment used to reverse the process of draining a swamp. In other words, the swamp is getting wet again. Ducks Unlimited has partnered with other interested groups in this effort to restore the swamp.
Finally, for anyone so inclined to plant a bald cypress tree, here is an excellent planting guide by the University of Florida's IFAS Extension site.
I am going back to Trap Pond in a few weeks. This time, I'm getting in a canoe for a better look at history.
Photo at right by Steve Hildebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Close-up photo of bald cypress trunks by Eric in SF via Wikimedia Commons