Guardians of the Sound

 In OBX Nature

As the morning mist rolls in, you spot one rising from the waters of the Albemarle Sound: furrowed bark, needles that are starting to turn coppery red and gold with the season, and those characteristic knees at the base of the trunk.

Alone but for its reflection, the bald cypress tree looks ancient in this moment. And as it turns out, it could be, with new research suggesting the southeast giants are among the world’s oldest trees living hundreds or even thousands of years.

Large and tough, the deciduous trees thrive both in and out of water in diverse environments throughout the South. They regularly grow to heights between 35 and 120 feet and often have widely buttressed, knobby trunks known as cypress knees. A certain majesty and mystery surrounds them – one that is only heightened by the knowledge that these trees have been watching over the changing tides of eastern North Carolina for centuries.

Discovery of an Ancient Forest

A few hours south of the Outer Banks along the Black River, a bald cypress forest grows within the depths of Three Sisters Swamp. The primeval trees are accessible only by boat through a labyrinth of winding channels, so it wasn’t until recently that scientists recognized just how old these cypresses are.

David W. Stahle, a dendrochronologist from the University of Arkansas, began studying bald cypresses on the Black River in 1985 and had already discovered trees more than 1,000 years old by the time he visited Three Sisters Swamp. He and his team took 110 core samples from the forest (without harming the trees) and found that one of the cypresses was 2,624 years old, which makes it older than the Roman Empire.

Living trees over 2,000 years old are extremely rare across the world. In fact, only eight species have been proven to live that long, and Stahle’s discovery makes the bald cypress the longest living known wetland tree species on earth.

The records contained in ancient tree rings can give us information on climate history going back thousands of years. And because bald cypresses are affected by dry and wet environmental conditions, the core samples show evidence of both during pre-colonial times – including a multi-year drought from 1587 to 1589, the time the Lost Colony lived on Roanoke Island.

bald cypress seeds
Most bald cypress trees do not produce seeds until they are about 30 years old.

Cypresses of the Outer Banks

On the Outer Banks, bald cypresses flourish in our shallow sound side waters and maritime swamp forests. While it’s unlikely that any of them are as old as the Black River trees, one just over 100 years old would have been here when the Wright Brothers made their first flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903, when the iconic Whalehead mansion was constructed as a private hunting club in the 1920s, and when Cape Hatteras National Seashore was established in 1953 as the first national seashore in the United States.

The history and legends that shaped our barrier island all fall within the lifespan of a bald cypress, even a young one by the species’ standards.

To see the trees for yourself while on the Outer Banks, head to Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve along Kitty Hawk Bay and the Albemarle Sound. Set away from the bustle of Croatan Highway, the reserve is home to swathes of maritime deciduous forest, maritime swamp forest, and marsh and creek habitats. It is a peaceful place to hike, fish, bird-watch, stand-up paddleboard, or kayak through the waterways.

Walk deep into the woods, and you will come across dune ridges standing as tall as 30 feet, known as high points, and swales, which are the valleys between them. The swales are often filled with water, and it is there that you can find sweet gum trees, red maples, and a tremendous number of bald cypresses in the eastern and central parts of the forest.

Cypresses can also be found further south along Cape Hatteras National Seashore (planted by the Civilian Conservation Core in the early to mid-1900s) and just inland surrounding bodies of water like Lake Mattamuskeet and Phelps Lake.

bald cypress knees
Bald Cypress "knees."

Growing Bald Cypress Trees

Because bald cypresses have the ability to adapt to survive, they will grow in a variety of conditions. The hardy tree flourishes in full sunlight or semi-shade and soils ranging from sandy to loamy to clay. It tolerates dry soil but thrives in wet and can grow in shallow water.

The bark is generally grayish or reddish brown in any environment with interwoven patterns of ridges and furrows, and the light, feathery needles are sage green in spring and red in autumn. But the presence of the distinctive knees may depend on proximity to water.

The knees were once thought to provide oxygen to the tree’s roots when submerged, but no evidence supports this theory. It is also possible that the knees offer structural support, and given the number of hurricanes that have come ashore over the years, this would be yet another example of the trees adapting.

Most bald cypress trees do not produce seeds until they are about 30 years old. Naturally, cones containing seeds are dispersed by water until deposited on a shore or carried by wildlife like squirrels. Although bald cypresses can grow in temperate and subtropical locales, they do require hot summers for good growth and to produce seed cones, making the South the ideal home for the unique tree. ♦

Along with contributing to island publications like My Outer Banks Home and The Outer Banks Wedding Guide, Lexi Holian has covered everything from Miami food festivals to St Barth sailing, for travel and hospitality brands around the world.

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