Muck Swamp Cypress

February 24, 2014This is a beautifully crisp, blue day with late winter temperatures. I end up spending most of the day in it, measuring trees while they are still bare. I start out determining the heights, using a laser rangefinder, of some of the tall, slim bald cypress in the muck swamp near the low boardwalk. The heights of eight trees are between 94-120 feet, with an average of 115 feet. Bald cypress at Congaree don’t get as tall as the loblollies and some of the hardwoods – 130 feet is a tall one.

I have always been puzzled by the sizes, and ages, of the muck swamp cypress. I’m pretty confident this area was never logged – there are no stumps or other evidence of cutting – yet the cypress here appear to be relatively young. None have the battered, flattened crowns of virgin cypress that have withstood centuries of hurricanes and wind storms (except for the big one at boardwalk stop #3), so I assume these muck swamp cypress are relatively young, perhaps no more than 150 years. Yet the water and swamp tupelo in this part of the muck swamp are clearly old growth, probably hundreds of years old, as indicated by their large buttresses, the shapes of their canopies and the fact that many are hollow, another indicator of old age. So what’s going on? We know that bald cypress get a head start on life if they receive lots of sunlight. Perhaps the muck swamp was at one time a pure stand of tupelo until some strong wind event destroyed and damaged enough of the tupelo canopy (even the strongest hurricane cannot blow down a tupelo, or cypress) to allow sufficient sunlight for cypress regeneration. It’s another one of those swamp mysteries that make the Congaree such a fascinating place.

While measuring the cypress I am serenaded, if that’s the right word, by a flock of a hundred plus grackles giving their rusty gate-hinge calls from the cypress canopy. The noisy blackbirds don’t stay long and move off with a synchronous swoosh of what sounds like the wing beat of one giant grackle. I sometimes see them during the fall in laurel oaks where they feed on the small acorns that have not yet fallen to the ground.

I return to the part of the Weston Lake Boot sector between the east and west legs of Weston Lake Loop Trail, and measure four sweetgum with circumferences of 12-14.5 feet heights of 121-123 feet. The largest circumference gum I find today is 14.7 feet, but its height is only 97 feet due to the fact that the canopy has a broken top, a not uncommon occurrence for the large specimens of this species. Probably the most interesting tree I measure today is an ironwood with a circumference of three feet but with a height of 73 feet! Not bad for a “lowly” understory species.

I notice today that many of the “tardily deciduous” laurel oak leaves have finally turned yellow and started falling to the ground. They go through a brief period of bareness in late winter, about a month to six weeks, before leafing out again in early April.