In order to improve their economy, institutions loudly proclaim their defining features; a diner may boast “The World’s Best Bacon Hamburgers” while its town claims “The World’s Largest Rubber Band Ball.” Longwood, Florida derives its fame from being the former home of what was once one of the largest and oldest pond cypress trees, Taxodium ascendens, in the United States.
The average pond cypress reaches about 49-59 feet, with the trunk expanding at the base. The tree has relatively short (3-10mm), slender leaves that are erect on shoots and the cones do not have 2.5 cm. The bark is a pale grey. Pond cypresses grow in water and show a growth trait called cypress knees, which are woody knobs sent above the water from the roots, allowing air to reach the roots in waterlogged environments. The Senator was one of the most famous pond cypresses.
3,400-3,600 years ago, around the time of Stonehenge’s construction, a sapling that would one day be dubbed “the Senator” began to grow in the swamps of central Florida. The young tree encountered fierce competition against the other local vegetation for the pivotal resource of light as branches of matured trees enveloped the entire canopy. A spot left empty by a fallen tree was quickly filled in by those surrounding it, yet the Senator had come to tower over the forest within one hundred years of its sprouting.
The tree continued to grow throughout the next several hundred years. By the time European explorers discovered the land, Native American tribes living in central Florida were using it as one of their landmarks. Years passed, the United States developed, and the Senator morphed from serving as a landmark to posing as a popular tourist attraction. The swampy habitat of the tree didn’t faze sightseers, who jumped from log to log to gaze upon the bark of the ancient plant. So many people visited the tree that the Works Progress Administration eventually constructed a boardwalk for travelling convenience.
The Senator reached its lifetime highest elevation of 165 feet in 1925. It was that year that a hurricane lobbed the crown off the top of the tree, reducing the height to 118 feet. Since a fear that the giant could easily become damaged by natural disaster had existed even before the storm, many people then advocated the placement of a lightning rod on top of the tree. Within the next few years, one was installed and the tree was also officially given its name. In 1927, the tree was dubbed “the Senator” in honor of Florida Sen. Moses Overstreet, who donated the tree and its surrounding land to Seminole County to create “Big Tree Park.” The tree itself was dedicated in 1929 during a ceremony in which former president Calvin Coolidge revealed a commemorative bronze plaque.
In the early 1990’s, Layman Hardy, a high school science teacher, contacted biologists at the University of Florida. He was a cypress enthusiast who was interested in creating clones of several of Florida’s more notable trees. With the help of Don Rockwood, forestry genetics professor at UF, and Marvin Buchannan, a North Florida nursery owner, Hardy took buds from a fallen branch of the Senator and grafted them onto the roots of ten other Cyprus trees. Three of the clones died within a year; the other seven, however, displayed monumental growth and continued to flourish even after the project began to fade from memory.
The project once again came into the limelight after the events of January 16, 2012. While trying to take methamphetamines, twenty-six year old Sara Barnes set the Senator on fire. The tree irreversibly blazed within minutes, burning from the inside out as a giant column of flame. Despite the best efforts of the local firefighters, the tree collapsed upon itself, leaving charred remains no more than 25 feet tall.
To help the Senator live again at Big Tree Park, one of the genetically identical trees grown from the Senator’s buds was moved from its original location in Northern Florida to the park in Longwood. There, it was fittingly named “the Phoenix,” where it and 2,000 year old companion tree “Lady Liberty” carry on the legacy of the Senator. During Thanksgiving break, I was lucky enough to visit Big Tree Park with my family. Lady Liberty was quite impressive, though it was moving to gaze upon the burnt bark of the Senator. I can only hope that environmental factors allow the Phoenix to have as fruitful a life as did its genetic predecessor.