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  • Shannon Carnevale

Cypress Trees: A Conduit of Culture and History

Woven into the fabric of Polk County’s heritage, cypress trees have a storied history and cultural significance. Native American cultures in Central Florida, such as the Calusa and the Timucuan, once utilized the durable wood of cypress for creating canoes and dwellings. You can see one of these dugout canoes at Polk’s Nature Discovery Center at Circle B Bar Reserve; it is displayed behind glass in one of the classrooms. If you have trouble finding it, ask the front desk volunteer for directions.



At the turn of the 19th century, cypress trees were highly valued as a lumber source and often harvested for their heartwood, which has natural insect resistance. How many of us have ‘cedar chests’ that may actually be made of cypress heartwood? We may never know, but bald cypress heartwood shares many of the same properties as Eastern redcedar.


Fun fact – Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) belongs to the Juniper genus (Juniperus) of the Cypress family (Cupressaceae). The so-called “true cedars” of the world belong to the Cedar genus (Cedrus) of the Pine family (Pinaceae). A more accurate common name for the species might be “Virginia juniper,” but I’ll stop with the botany lesson for now.


Cypress trees feature prominently on historic postcards and merchandise showcasing Florida lakes and rivers. They are in the iconic images of water skiers on Cypress Garden’s merchandise and promotional materials, honoring their namesake trees.


UNIQUE BIOLOGY OF CYPRESS TREES

Cypress trees are among our few deciduous conifers in Florida. They shed their soft needles every fall or winter, depending on local conditions, and this leaf drop also benefits our local water quality. The needles contain high levels of tannins, which turn our blackwater swamps and rivers a tea-like color, helping reduce excess algae growth. While not the only species contributing to this natural process, cypress trees are significant players worth appreciating.


Furthermore, cypress trees are capable of living for hundreds of years, outlasting many of our other common tree species. It’s not uncommon to find a cypress tree that predates the incorporation of Winter Haven, Lakeland, or even Polk County and Florida. Where older cypress trees are missing, it’s usually due to removal rather than natural causes.


The bald cypress is celebrated not only for its longevity and ability to thrive in flooded conditions but also for its enigmatic biological features. The “knees” of cypress trees, protrusions emerging from the roots, remain a subject of fascination and ongoing research. Contrary to previous beliefs about their role in oxygen exchange, current studies suggest these structures may provide structural support in soft, muddy soils or have evolved for other, yet-to-be-understood reasons. This aspect of cypress biology underscores the tree’s adaptation to its environment and our ongoing discovery about local species and ecosystems.


THE ECOLOGICAL BENEFITS OF CYPRESS TREES

Cypress trees, particularly the bald cypress, are prevalent in the southeastern United States’ wetlands, providing critical ecosystem services. Their dense root systems stabilize shorelines, reduce erosion, slow waves (natural and boat wake), and filter pollutants and sediments.


Current research suggests the oxygenated root zone creates an ideal habitat for microorganisms, which help filter water and improve overall water quality. This microbial hot zone is considered one of the ecosystem’s most crucial parts for nutrient cycling and excess nutrient removal. Vegetated shorelines, supported by cypress trees and other emergent vegetation, are essential for maintaining clean waterways in Florida.


In our wetlands, the soft soils and humus (accumulated decaying leaf matter, not to be confused with the food: hummus!) collected around and between cypress knees act as natural sponges. They absorb excess water during floods and release it during dry spells, playing a critical role in water management. Additionally, wetland exchange with our lakes has been shown to be a vital component of a healthy lake ecosystem. Locally, lakes with robust connections to wetlands generally appear clearer and have lower nutrient loading because the wetlands serve as natural water treatment zones.


The Lake Conine Wetland Project in Winter Haven is a notable example of wetland restoration, designed to reconnect Lake Conine with its historic wetlands and improve water quality. Urban lakes, including Lake Conine, often suffer from stormwater runoff pollution and excessive nutrients from their watersheds. The project’s completion led Winter Haven Natural Resources to observe significant water quality improvements in Lake Conine, showcasing the positive impact of targeted restoration efforts.


Another example is the Se7en Wetlands Park in Lakeland. Though not natural wetlands, these constructed wetlands serve as the final treatment stage for wastewater leaving the city of Lakeland. The treated water is then released into the North Prong of the Alafia River, directly flowing into Tampa Bay. Se7en Wetlands Park is open to the public seven days a week from 7 am, to 7 pm.


PRESERVING THE LEGACY OF CYPRESS TREES

Cypress trees are integral to the ecological integrity and cultural heritage of Polk County, teaching us lessons in resilience, adaptability, and biodiversity. As stewards of our waterways, it is our collective responsibility to protect these stately treasures.


Let’s celebrate and safeguard the cypress trees of Polk County, ensuring they continue to thrive as cornerstones of Florida’s natural and cultural landscapes. Oh, and Happy Earth Month Polk County!


For more insights into the conservation and importance of cypress trees in Polk County, readers are encouraged to connect with the UF/IFAS Extension Office in Bartow or email me at scarnevale@ufl.edu. You can also find my Extension program on Instagram at @PolkNR.

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