A Tree in Paradise

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Published on: May. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

"The lumber companies don't carry it anymore. You have to special order it. That wood used to be so plentiful around here. Now it's rare," said Delois Ellis, tourist assistant at Hunter-Dawson State Historic Site in New Madrid.

Ellis was describing a practical problem. Cypress lumber is hard to get in Missouri. She was also talking about the history of the Bootheel. Cypress trees once flourished in the swamps, saturated lands, and low ridges of Missouri's eight southeastern counties. Now, with the swamps drained and the higher ground converted to agriculture, most of the cypress trees are gone.

Speaking of the Hunter-Dawson Home, tour guide Barb Campbell said, "It is a cypress farm house, pretty much 100 percent cypress, except for the floor." Ellis added, "the floor on the main level was replaced with pine after the flood of 1927." Now, when employees of the Department of Natural Resources replace or repair any part of the house, they do it with cypress.

William Hunter began construction of the house in 1859. He was a merchant and farmer, who owned a gristmill and a sawmill. His mill and others like it supplied the lumber for his home and many others in the area.

"We find that many of the older buildings around here are built of cypress," Ellis said. "It's real hard wood."

David Wissehr, wildlife management biologist at Duck Creek Conservation Area in Stoddard County, confirmed that "Cypress is a pretty unique wood, amazingly resistant to rot and termites. It's a strong wood that has weight to it and a fairly high resin content.

The southern, or baldcypress, is a native of coastal wetlands from Delaware through Texas and of Mississippi River bottomlands as far north as southeastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois. Like the sequoias of California, baldcypress trees grow large and may live to a venerable age. They appear "bald" in the winter because, although they are conifers, they shed their small, slender leaves annually.

Commonly associated with swamps, cypress trees also grow in wet soils and even on dryer ground. According to Wissehr, "They're pretty adaptable and even occur on ridges. Well, they call them ridges down here, but I'm from the Ozarks. I call them small elevations, where the ground may be saturated. I've planted them on some fairly droughty sites. They're a real hardy tree, and they do just fine."

Because they live in wet soil, cypress trees develop flared trunks that help them remain

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