Heart of Louisiana: Legacy Cypress

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


FOX 8 photoFOX 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.  
Copyright 2017 WVUE. All rights reserved.

By Jonathan Olivier / Staff Writer metadata
Posted Jan 10, 2015 at 9:00 PM

A cruise down any bayous of south Louisiana would once reveal vast labyrinths of bald cypress towering over the wetlands.
A cruise down any bayous of south Louisiana would once reveal vast labyrinths of bald cypress towering over the wetlands.
Trees as wide as cars and standing hundreds of years before Columbus made his voyage across the Atlantic dotted the landscape, as common as buildings and highways today.
Now, what’s been left are mostly young, thin cypress clinging to life after decades of logging, hurricanes and salt water intrusion along the coast. Even trees farther inland face being cut down due to urban sprawl.
It’s estimated there was once more than 2 million acres of cypress-tupelo swamps in Louisiana, and after significant logging in the 18th and 19th centuries virtually all of the virgin cypress forests disappeared. Only around 800,000 acres have grown back over the years, according to the Atchafalaya Basin Keeper, an environmental organization. 
Spotting an old-growth cypress, older than around 200 years, is considered a rarity. So rare, in fact, that organizations are fighting to protect them.
“I’m particularly interested in trying to identify landmark trees on private property to try to promote the stewardship of these trees,” said Harvey Stern, of New Orleans. 
Stern is the coordinator of a nonprofit, aimed at identifying old-growth cypress, called the Louisiana Purchase Cypress Legacy. Stern travels around the state to take core samples to age and identify cypress worthy of protection, recognizing those of significant size and age.
”(The organization) was set up as a way to commemorate cypress alive at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803,” Stern said. 
A well-known tree in West Feliciana Parish on Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, known as the National Champion, is estimated at 500 years or older. It’s the largest — 17 feet wide — of any tree species east of California. But Stern said he’s found some estimated at around 1,000 years old in the state.
Stern has analyzed old-growth trees stretching all over Louisiana, except in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. Stern said he hasn’t documented or received any calls about old-growth cypress in the two parishes.
Whether it is a lack of large cypress or landowners with old growth trees unaware of Stern’s program in the area, driving down the many finger-like communities of the two parishes offers a picture as to perhaps why there’s been none reported.
Follow Wendy Billiot, of Theriot, as she pilots her boat through marsh in central and southern Terrebonne Parish.
While guiding wetland tours or fishing, there’s a good chance throughout her day on the bayou she’ll come across stands of gray remnants of cypress among the marsh. The dead trees are common throughout both parishes, and their losses continue to mount.
The trees died mostly from saltwater intrusion, Billiot said. As the coast continues to erode, saltwater continues its march north and the cypress trees are in the line of fire.
“They’re very hard to regenerate,” she said. “It’s not a matter of flushing freshwater through them, but a matter of them being in a location where salinity is below so many parts per thousand. In other words, they can’t take any salt water; they are not salt tolerant.“
Though large, old-growth cypress are beautiful sights, even the younger versions can be beneficial to ecosystems.
“It’s a tree that’s rooted. It holds soil together,” said Barton Joffrion with the LSU AgCenter in Houma. “When you lost trees of that magnitude, you’ve lost part of the ecosystem.“
Joffrion said cypress offer soil stability, something desperately needed when land erodes with such ease along the coast. But the trees also provide protection from hurricanes, acting as a buffer when storms threaten coastal communities.
From her own observations, Billiot said she has noticed the durability of cypress in the marsh, noting their superior ability to survive hurricanes when other trees snap.
“I have noticed that cypress knees are a heavy-duty anchoring system,” she said. “They are able to withstand hurricanes because of that system. They sway and bend and don’t’ snap. I think that’s very interesting; they are so suited to their habitat.“
While the losses of the trees have been significant, there are areas left in the central and southern parts of Terrebonne where cypress still thrive, Billiot said. She often rides past areas with towering cypress, alive and well, on her way to fishing grounds near Lake De Cade, west of Dulac.
The salt water hasn’t penetrated the area and enough freshwater exists to keep the trees thriving. The scene, Billiot said, is beautiful.
But those scenes are continuing to disappear, with trees enduring a slow, inevitable demise. Billiot carries a realistic approach with her and she questions how long the trees will continue to live in an area surrounded by salt water intrusion.
“As the saltwater line moves northward, you can expect those cypress trees to die ... and salinity increases,” she said. 
Large-scale projects to increase freshwater flow, such as the Houma Navigation Canal lock complex, proposed to be built near the Bubba Dove floodgate near Dulac, will work to give a fighting chance to the marsh where Billiot lives and works. But many of the state’s restoration projects to enhance fresh water flow could take years, time some cypress forests just don’t have.
Joffrion said regenerating cypress in areas that have been heavily inundated with salt water will be a difficult, if almost impossible task.
“It’s going to be tough to (grow) trees back in those areas,” he said. “Over the many of years, we had areas in lower parts of the parishes that had nice, beautiful cypress trees. Through the forces of nature that has changed.”

Staff Writer Jonathan Olivier can be reached at 857-2204 or

The Sierra Club's Delta Chapter featured LPCL coring an East Baton Rouge Parish cypress in   its 2009 newsletter. 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.
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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