Category Archives: Trees

The cypress swamp

Darlington, South Carolina

Cyrpess wading in the creek (1)We walk through a cypress swamp full of trees that love to get their feet wet. Some are thick with gray shaggy beards of Spanish moss, while others are only tinseled with a sprig or two. Some trees wade in the middle of a creek, one that flows with water the color of sweet tea, though not nearly as sweet.

Village of knees

 

The walking path rises above a village of knees; stubby, leafless and unbranched versions of their tree parents. These cypress knees support the tree and let oxygen get down to the roots when flooded. A cypress tree doesn’t have to hold its breath underwater, it can breathe through its knees.

 

Swamp backbone (1)

 

Among the knees and trees is a backbone standing as straight as a soldier. It was formed by hogwire fence nailed to a tree long ago. The tree grew around the fence, died, rotted and fell away, but the hogwire held its backbone erect.     

 

 

Strip of bark in cypress swamp, Darlington, South Carolina
(c) Alison Gould

 

A strip of twisting bark stands as tall as roof. Though we don’t know how it stands because it is a bark without its tree, as though the tree was suddenly frightened and ran off leaving a strip of its backside behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swamp rose

The swamp is abloom with flowers, but I am a poor botanist who just learned that Spanish moss is not a moss*. A red flower dots the swamp, a flower I will call a swamp rose, but it may not even be a rose. It may not even be a flower, just a moss masquerading as a flower, just as a flower masquerades as a moss – because Nature enjoys how clever it is.

 

 

Crane fly in cypress swamp, Darlington, South CarolinaA crane fly rests on a tree. The crane fly is sometimes called a mosquito hawk, under the impression that it eats mosquitos. I am a better entomologist than botanist and I know that a crane fly does not eat mosquitos. What I don’t know is how it got this mistaken identity because all I’ve ever seen a crane fly do is beat itself stupid against the drywall in my house until it successfully wrapped itself in spider web.

In the gravel parking lot a sign tells me about all the plants I saw, but I forget to remember all the information.     

 

*Spanish moss is not a moss but a flowering plant like daffodils in your lawn. Unlike the daffodil, it uses the air as its soil. Spanish moss is in the same family of plants as pineapples, the bromeliads, a family of epiphytes (means “living on plants”) that use other plants as habitats like lichen on rocks. They are a tropical plant-family that require indirect sunlight and little water, which is why my red-tongued bromeliad died when I watered it daily and put it in a bright, sun-filled, bromeliad-killing window. My bromeliad simultaneously drowned and burned to death. I told you I was a terrible botanist. For the Spanish moss, it may seem strange to have a pineapple as your cousin, but we all have a strange pineapple cousin who doesn’t quite fit but just like the Spanish moss, you can’t pick who’s in your family. If we could, there’d be a lot of lonely pineapples.

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How to answer an ogre: or lessons you should have learned in 8th grade science

The tree looks like a petrified ogre caught in the act of eating chains. Like an ogre who might guard a bridge and when you try to pass asks you a math problem in a voice that sounds like he’s gargling gravel. If you answer correctly you will hear him say, “You may pass.” Get it wrong and you’ll hear your bones crunch in his chain-eating jaws.

You pound a nail into a tree three feet off the ground. If the tree grows 1.79 feet per year, how high up will the nail be in 4 years and 36 days (0.008 years)?

You have one minute to solve it.

The answer is three feet. Did you find yourself in the ogre’s mouth on the other side of the bridge?

Ogre tree chomps on chains, Williamsburg, VA (4)

The ogre was testing your 8th grade science knowledge. The reason the nail stays at the same height is because trees add layers at the top, not at the bottom. A tree grows taller from the apical meristem at the tips of branches and trunks. Roots elongate the same way, they add tissue at their tips. This is why a barbed wire fence nailed to a tree thirty years ago isn’t 20 feet in the air today. Or why those initials you and your wife carved into that oak tree saying you’ll be together forever in 1998 is still at eye level and why you now have to walk your new wife hurriedly past that tree hoping she doesn’t notice. But wait long enough and maybe the lateral meristem will cover your shame.

Trees grow taller from the tips and fatter from the outer layers. Stem and trunk diameters increase each year as a new layer of wood is wrapped around the tree. This is why – after a while – a tree looks like its chewing on barbed wire or old dog chain left behind by former tenants. The barbed wire stayed in place as the new layers grew past it.

Ogre tree chomps on chains, Williamsburg, VA (2)

The Mountain 2013 (61)
Nom, nom, nom.