Superphotosynthesizer: Cat Island Baldcypress

Today May 18, 2015 is ‘Fascination of Plants Day,’ an initiative organized by the European Plant Science Organisation with other events organized by the American Society of Plant Biology. On this blog, there’s no shortage of reasons why plants are fascinating, but to most they are still just the scenery. Take some time today to consider all that these primary producers do for you. Here are just a few things plants do for us- food, forestry products, paper, pharmaceuticals, energy, and beauty.

Of course, I am partial to the oxygen that they provide for us. In that spirit, today’s post will feature another superphotosynthesizer: the Cat Island Baldcypress located on the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge in West Feliciana Parish, LA. This tree is the national champion of its species and also noted as the largest tree of any species east of the Sierra Nevada range.

It is located at the end of an easy walking trail (0.75 mile round-trip), but it only accessible for part of the year. Access to portions of the Cat Island NWR is prevented by levels of the Mississippi River since at least a couple of low bridges must be traversed to get you from the main road to the trailhead. If the river stage at Baton Rouge is greater than 20 feet, which is usually between February and June, there is no vehicle access to the trail. I was able to make a trip there in early February just before the river restricted access. It’s not quite clear whether the base of the tree itself is submerged at any point during the spring flooding because there is a really nice decking just before the tree at the end of the trail. As of today, the river stage at Baton Rouge is 27.8 feet, so it may still be another month before access is regained.

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The tree is impressive. At 96 feet it is taller than all the other trees around, but it’s certainly not the tallest tree east of the Sierra Nevada. However, its girth is undeniably impressive. It has the characteristic buttressed-base of all baldcypress trees, which measures 17 feet in diameter and 56 feet in circumference.  It has knees as tall as me. Well, for those of you who know me in real life maybe that’s not so impressive, but for a random root outgrowth that is still significant.

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This brings me to one of the real secrets of the swamp- cypress knees. These strange growths at the base of cypress trees have been puzzling botanists and plant biologists for centuries since Francois Andre Michaux wrote in 1819, “No cause can be assigned for their existence.” Many people have had theories as to how they contribute to cypress biology- increased aeration capability for growing in inundated swamps, methane (swamp gas) emission conduits, vegetative reproduction, mechanical support, nutrient acquisition, and carbohydrate storage. None of these hypotheses have really held up to analysis and the biological function* of these root outgrowths are still fascinating plant biologists today.

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This is just one local fascinating plant example. Check out the links below for more information about Fascination of Plants Day or follow #FOPD on social media.

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Johnna

*These expendable appendages are painted and carved for folk art projects. They are also fairly proficient at disemboweling lawnmowers of homeowners with cypress trees in their yards and capsizing careless motorboat operators in the swamps. Perhaps this is a plant defense mechanism ahead of its time.

References and Links:

http://www.plantday.org/

http://fascinationofplantsday.org/home.htm

http://blog.aspb.org/fascination-of-plants-day/about-fascination-of-plants-day/

http://blog.aspb.org/fascination-of-plants-day/

http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=43697

http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Cat_Island/visit/plan_your_visit.html

http://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/trees/baldcypress/deep_south/

http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/Volume_1/taxodium/distichum.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cypress_knee

http://www.venerabletrees.org/good-knees-said-baldcypress/

http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/2000-60-4-cypress-knees-an-enduring-enigma.pdf

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