Heart of Louisiana: Legacy Cypress

Tuesday, August 22nd 2017, 8:57 pm CDT


FOX 8 photo
FOX 8 photo
If you want to find the oldest cypress trees in Louisiana, you'll probably need to hike through woods or wade through a swamp. This is where the ancient trees have thrived for thousands of years, until a century of logging wiped out virgin cypress forests.
"We got a registry for the live oak trees but we haven't done much with these beautiful old cypress that we see pretty much representing this and it is the official state tree after all," said Harvey Stern with the Legacy Cypress Project.
Stern is a man on a mission. The former New Orleans City Planner wants to find the biggest cypress trees in each Louisiana parish. 
"We know about the coastal cypress and the threats that they are under, but some of the most beautiful pockets of old growth cypress are up in north Louisiana, northeast Louisiana," said Stern. 
In fact the country's largest tree of any type east of California is a bald cypress tree near St. Francisville, Louisiana. 
The base of the cypress tree is massive. It's 17 feet in diameter. That's the size of a lot of home living rooms. The champion tree is believed to be 1500 years old. It's part of the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. Terry Matherne found a large tree on his property near the Amite River in Ascension Parish. 
"I'd like to know what it was like. When all of them trees like we are going to see were everywhere in here," said Matherne. 
After eight years on the property, Matherne discovered the giant tree. 
"Wow," said Matherne. "I didn't think there is anything that big still in here. I wouldn't doubt there are still some more. Later on when I get time, I'm going to walk some more in here." 
First a tape measure is stretched around the tree to measure its circumference. 
"Twenty-one feet, nine inches," said Stern. 
Then using a hand drill, Stern pierces the bark and digs toward the center of the tree. He pulls out a core sample, with rings that mark every year of the tree's life. 
"But if you see where my thumb is pointing here, you should be able to see some of those darker colored marks on there," said Stern as he pointed down at the tree. 
Stern counts 100 rings in a sample nearly three inches long. 
"Simply counting the rings and extrapolating based on the size of the coring," said Stern. 
Based on that, Stern estimates that the cypress is 700 to 1,000 years old. That earns the tree a plaque, as a legacy cypress tree, Sterns designation for any tree that was here at the time of the Louisiana Purchase, more that 200 years ago. 
"I think we should care for anything that has survived the centuries, going back in many cases 1000 years, 1500 years, I'm finding in some cases," said Stern. 
And these old trees give us a hint of what Louisiana looked like, when forests were crowded with these cypress giants. 
The Legacy Cypress Project depends on landowners to send in information on large trees. So far, they've found 200-year-old cypress in one-third of Louisiana's parishes. For more information, click here and here.  
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The Sierra Club's Delta Chapter featured LPCL in one of its recent newsletters. Read or download the article here. It's on pg. 12.


Wal-Mart has agreed to stop selling Louisiana cypress mulch, but much more needs to be done to protect the state's iconic tree.

From the 10-23-07 issue of New Orleans' Gambit Weekly newspaper.

The La. House of Representatives declared August 2003 as Louisiana Purchase Cypress Heritage Month.

Louisiana Environmentalist Magazine cover story on Cypress Swamps in the Mississippi Valley

Come on a brief voyage of discovery into Louisiana's environmental history. Begin a search through our rich legacy for clues to the past and lessons for the future.
In this retrospective adventure, we'll view Louisiana through some of the accounts of the early explorers. The Louisiana they saw teemed with wildlife -- parakeets, bison, bears, and waterfowl. It contained impenetrable cypress swamps, dense canebrakes, vast park-like forests of longleaf pine, majestic oak cheniers, endless trembling marshes, and sweeping prairies aflame with wildflowers.
» More

FAMILY TREE: Beloved cypress given honor

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA)

Beloved cypress given honor
Volunteers hunting 200-year-old trees
   Lynne Jensen
Staff writer
Published: August 20, 2003
The big baldcypress tree in front of Leona Epstein’s Uptown home was marked with a plaque Tuesday because of its historic importance. But it was the mighty presence of the tree that beckoned Epstein in 1959. So taken with the towering cypress was Epstein that she and her husband, Arthur, bought the two-story house it shades at 1664 Robert St. and raised four children there.

"I feel I’m in a treehouse," Epstein said, stepping from her second-floor bedroom onto a porch little more than an arm’s length away from the tree, which measures about 13 feet in circumference. Staring up at the tree from the front lawn were family, neighbors and friends, who gathered for the ceremony marking the cypress as a Louisiana Purchase "Founder’s Tree."

The old tree was alive when renowned pirate Jean Lafitte "was burying his loot," said Harvey Stern, who presented the Epsteins with their Founder’s Tree plaque.

Stern, coordinator of the Louisiana Purchase Cypress Legacy campaign, hopes to identify every baldcypress in Louisiana that is at least 200 years old -- alive at the time of the Louisiana Purchase -- and to ensure that the trees "will grow and prosper without man-made interference" by placing them on a registry of "Louisiana Purchase Trees."

Organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and Jean Lafitte National Park are endorsing the volunteer campaign in recognition of this year’s bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the designation of the baldcypress as the state tree. The Legislature declared August "Louisiana Purchase Cypress Legacy Month."

The legacy campaign is a treasure hunt for the old trees, which are "as valuable as gold or silver," Stern said.

A Founder’s Tree plaque also was presented Tuesday to Johnny and Mamie Sargent Majoria, who have documented more than a dozen baldcypress trees measuring more than 13 feet in circumference on their 800-acre home site in Harrisonburg.

"The biggest is 23 feet" around, Johnny Majoria said.

The cypress-filled property has been in his wife’s family since 1812, Majoria said. The trees survived the 20th century because his father-in-law, Roy Sargent, who died four years ago at 84, turned a deaf ear to money-waving lumber companies, he said.

"We all have a moral obligation to keep them," Majoria said of the baldcypress trees.

A third plaque was presented to Virginia Rettig, director of the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Francisville, home of a baldcypress that is 54 feet in circumference and believed to be between 800 to 1,500 years old.

The Cat Island tree is the largest virgin baldcypress on the planet and the largest tree of any species east of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, dwarfed in North America only by the giant redwoods and sequoias on the Sierra’s western slope.

The Cat Island tree is the sixth largest tree in the United States and the centerpiece of the 6,500-acre wildlife refuge, Rettig said. "It’s a national treasure right here in Louisiana," she said.

Epstein said the cypress that stands like a giant sentry in front of her home is "a valuable part of our family."

When she bought her house more than 40 years ago, a contractor said the huge tree was too close to the house and should be cut down, Epstein said. "I said, ‘No, the house is too close to the tree,’ " she said. "The house was incidental."

. . . . . . .

Cypress Dating Boring Process

LILLIPUTIAN  Stern twists the coring tool while Ed Carroll watches the process, hoping his tree will be a Louisiana Purchase Tree. The tree actually predated the purchase by at least 600 years.


VARNADO n The cypress king of Pigott's Swamp featured in a November issue of the Daily News is now known to be approximately 800 years old. Three core samples taken from the tree were examined and the rings counted. The age of 800 years is a "conservative estimate" made by Harvey Stern, coordinator for the Louisiana Purchase Cypress Legacy, an organization dedicated to finding cypress trees that are at least as old as the Louisiana Purchase.
After the November article was written about the tree, which is on land near Varnado owned by Ed Carroll, the existence of the tree was passed by word of mouth to Stern. When Stern heard about a cypress tree that measured 19 feet in circumference at the level of six feet from the ground, he was quite excited.

He has been dating trees for some time and knew that most cypress trees that are 12 inches or larger in breast-height circumference are at least 200 years old and therefore as old as the Louisiana Purchase. While the circumference of a tree hundreds of years old varies depending on its location, access to nutrients and other ecological variables, Stern expected Carroll's tree to be at least as old as the Louisiana Purchase.

After contacting Carroll, Stern made a trip to Washington Parish to take a core sample from the cypress. He checked Carroll's measurement and found the tree to be 18 feet 9 inches in circumference at breast height, about five feet from the ground. Using a small tool that can extract a 14-inch sample, he bored a hole in the tree and removed a sample so he could count the rings of the tree.

Because the cypress was hollow in the middle and a 14-inch core was difficult to obtain, Stern took three samples for examination. When asked if coring could potentially expose the tree to disease or insect infestation and kill the tree, he said it was very unlikely.
"When a tree is 75 years old or older," he explained, "they build up a resistance to insects and disease."

After a sample is dried and sanded, the tree is dated by counting the rings under a microscope, determining what length of the radius the sample represents, and then extrapolating the probable age of the tree. Stern counted 48 rings on one sample, 75 rings on another and 80 rings on the third. He averaged the tree ring count and multiplied by the fraction of the radius the length represented to arrive at the age of 800 years.

Stern said this is a conservative estimate and the tree could be as old as 1000 years of age. Dendrochronologist Margaret Devall has documented several trees in the Pearl River Basin at around 1000 years of age. Stern himself is an amateur and he sometimes has his counts corroborated by Devall. Since the rings on Carroll's tree were quite clear, he has no plans for corroboration this time.

"The rings on Ed's tree are remarkably visible," he said; "little sanding was required. I counted the rings under a microscope at the UNO Biology lab and do not plan to get the count corroborated because they are so clear."

While much of the old growth cypress in Louisiana was logged years ago, Stern has documented a number of large old cypress trees as Louisiana Purchase Trees. The largest bald cypress in the U.S. is located in Louisiana on Cat Island, which is owned by the Louisiana Nature Conservancy. It measures 53 feet in circumference at breast height.

Carroll's tree is the first tree Stern took a core sample of in Washington Parish. He has found several cypress trees in the vicinity of Poole's Bluff that are probably 200 years old or older.

Stern obtained several grants to aid him in his quest to document Louisiana Purchase cypress trees. He felt 2003 was a good year to begin the project since it was the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase and the 40th anniversary of the naming of the bald cypress as the official state tree.

He hopes the Louisiana Purchase Cypress Legacy will help people be more conscious of tree age and the need to preserve Louisiana's ecological heritage. The owner of each tree documented as a Louisiana Purchase Tree receives a plaque attesting to the tree's age.


If the cypress tree proved to be 1000 years old, it would have been a seedling when in 1000 AD when Leif Eriksson, Viking explorer, discovered North America.

If the tree is only 800 years old, it would have sprouted about the time the Magna Carta was signed by King John of England, restricting the power of the monarchy, particularly in matters of taxation.

Without the Magna Carta,the issue of taxation without representation would never have been raised in the New World and the American Revolution may have never occurred.

Historic happenings during life of cypress

First 200 years:

*Middle ages at their height

*Magna Carta signed in England

Second 200 years:

*Reformation began

*Columbus discovered America

*Hernando de Soto claimed territory for Spain

*French trappers explored northern Mississippi

Third 200 years:

*Robert Cavalier descended Mississippi; claimed territory for *Louis XIV for France

*New Orleans founded

*Acadians arrived in Louisiana

*American Revolution

*U.S. Constitution formed

Fourth 200 years:

*Louisiana became a state

*Battle of New Orleans

*Louisiana secedes from union

*Civil War

*Great Southern Lumber Company formed

*Bogalusa incorporated