Sentinels of the Swamp: Cypress and Tupelo Trees

Rising tall from dark, murky waters, the bald cypress tree is a stately symbol of the swamp. Associated with the bayou, Spanish moss, pelicans, egrets and alligators, the bald cypress is the state tree of Louisiana. Its feathery foliage, wide and buttressed base and irregular crown dominate many southeastern wetlands, and its range extends throughout the southeastern U.S. from southern Delaware to eastern Texas.

Bald cypress prefer saturated or seasonally inundated wetland soils, low elevations, flat topography and humid climates; although ornamental species can be cultivated in a variety of climates. While it is a cone bearing member of the coniferous redwood family, it is in fact deciduous, losing its flat, one to two centimeter long needles in the winter, a characteristic that led to it being dubbed the “bald” cypress.

“Cypress knees,” or protrusions that grow from the trees’ roots and stick out above the water are thought to help stabilize the tree against hurricane force winds and may aid in respiration for trees that are consistently standing in water.

Bald cypress are often found growing with another type of swamp loving tree, the tupelo. Of the Nyssa genus, the tupelo prefers wet soils and seasonal flooding. The name “tupelo,” a common name used for several varieties of Nyssa trees, literally means “swamp tree” in the language of the Muscogee. In North America, there are several species of tupelo: black, black gum or swamp tupelo; water tupelo,; and Ogeechee tupelo.

Specialized roots allow it to live in consistently inundated environments, and its swollen base, tapering up a long trunk, provides stability in heavy winds and floods. Black and water tupelo wood is used extensively by artistic woodcarvers, especially for carving ducks and other wildfowl.

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