The Senator is a very large and very old bald cypress tree. His scientific name is Taxodium distichum. Along with the magnolia blossom, the bald cypress is symbolic of the "Old South". It is commonly seen growing in swamps and waterways surrrounded by knobby protrusions called "knees" and draped with Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).
Bald cypress has soft feathery leaves that turn orange in fall before falling to the ground - unsual behavior for a conifer (i.e. a cone bearing plant like pine). The bald cypress's cones are spherical and about 1 in (2.5 cm) in diameter which takes us to a point of confusion surrounding The Senator. Several references state that he bears cones that are 11 in (30 cm) in diameter! I suspect that this inaccuracy is due to an error made by the sign painter a long time ago. It's a good thing too - that's as big as a basketball and would pack a lethal punch falling from The Senator's lofty heights!
Because of this height, he's been equipped with a lightning rod for protection during storms. Look closely at the picture at left and you can see the 1/4 in (0.6 cm) copper cable that runs the length of the trunk safely grounding him to the forest floor.
Even though he doesn't produce 11 in (30 cm) cones, The Senator is still a big guy! The photograph is of the sign that displays his official statistics. These are based on estimates made in 1946 by the American Forestry Association.
The sign reports that the tree is 126 ft (38.4 m) in height - I've been unable to confirm if any measurements have occurred since 1946. The Senator was said to have been much taller, at about 165 ft (50.3 m), prior to 1926 when the crown was damaged by a hurricane and reduced in height by more than 30 ft (9.1 m). Perhaps it is time to remeasure and update the big guy's "stats" - he's sure to have grown a few feet over the last fifty-some years!
The Senator's trunk is 17.5 ft (17.5 m) in diameter with a circumference of 47 ft (14.3 m), Other references report a circumference of 54 ft (16.5 m), perhaps this is a later measurement? The sign also informs that the the tree contains over 50,000 board feet of lumber.
But He's Not the Biggest...
In the middle of this century there was disagreement over The Senator's heritage - namely what species is he? In the 1950s it was determined that the tree was not a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) but rather a pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens), a very close cousin.
Once this reclassification took place it was determined that not only was The Senator a pond cpress, but he was the BIGGEST pond cypress in the world!In 1954 The Senator was featured in the Saturday Evening Post and described as " the largest tree east of the Rockies". But around that same time it was reported that The Senator may have competition from a bald cypress in Southern Mexico that was reported by a Missouri timber engineer to be 140 ft (42.7 m) tall and 39 ft (11.9 m) in diameter (measured 40 ft above the ground) and at least 4000 years old - at the time believed to be the oldest living thing on earth. There is also a competitor reported in Weakley County Tennessee.
In 1964, an article in the Tallahassee paper reported the dispute over whether The Senator is a bald cypress or a pond cypress. At that time it was reocgnized as the largest living Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens) in the world by the American Forestry Association.
During the last 30 years The Senator was once again classified as bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) - but we love him anyway even if he's not the largest.
The Senator's official age is 3500 years plus or minus a 100 years. Although this might not make him the oldest tree in America it at least makes him one of the oldest (ok, so there's an old geezer out in California that's 7000 years old but he's just a scrawny little bristlecomb pine...).
One reference states that an "increment borer" was used by the Department of Forestry to remove a core sample from the trunk. From this core the tree's annual growth rings were counted to come to a very accurate measurement of age. Other references indicate that this reported age is actually an estimate made in 1936 by the American Forestry Association. Estimate or not it is a certainity that this tree sprouted about the time when the Egyptians were raising their first pyraminds along the Nile. At 15 centuries The Senator was already a forest giant when Christ was born. And by the time Ponce de Leon explored Florida this tree was a 3,000 year old landmark that looked much as it does today, guiding the native people as they traveled the nearby Saint Johns River.
2/15/01; updated 2/10/04