Plant is related to redwoods

Photo by John Nelson The leaves of this Mystery plant are needle shaped and arranged in two rows on either side of a narrow stem.

Sweet is the swamp with its secrets, until we meet a snake;

‘Tis then we sigh for houses, and our departure take.

– Emily Dickinson

I must here disagree with Ms. Dickinson. Sure enough, a swamp has plenty of secrets, and snakes are one of their wonderful aspects. Visitors to swamps and other wetlands should learn to appreciate the snakes of our outdoor places, as well as the other animal life present. It’s good to remember that snakes are a natural part of our landscapes, and their presence in natural systems indicates healthy biological diversity.

Although it’s late November, you could see a snake in a swamp on a relatively warm day. Yes, some species are venomous (it’s wrong to say “poisonous”), and need to be respected, but in your day-to-day experiences, you are more likely to be hurt backing out of your driveway than dealing with a snake.

Pardon the digression, but our Mystery Plant likes swampy places. This is one of the characteristic wetland forest trees of the South, found naturally on the Atlantic coastal plain from Maryland to Texas, and well into the Mississippi River valley, into southern Illinois. It is a conifer and bears cones. The cones are small, only 1 to 2 inches long and shaped like the cones on the giant coast redwoods of California, to which our Mystery tree is related.

Our plant is a deciduous conifer, which is unusual as most conifers are evergreen plants. Its leaves are needle shaped and arranged in two rows on either side of a narrow stem. In the autumn, the needles tend to turn a brown-orange, and the assemblage of stem with attached leaves falls away as a single unit.

This species tends to produce prominent knees – vegetative structures whose function isn’t known exactly. Tree-watchers sometimes confuse the trees without foliage with gum trees (or “tupelo”) with which it commonly occurs. Tupelos have smooth bark, whereas our Mystery Tree tends to have shreddy bark, somewhat orange beneath the shreds.

The tree pictured is from the edge of a marsh along Cuckold Creek in Colleton County. The largest known individual in South Carolina, however, is at Congaree National Park in Richland County, and it represents the state champion, some 131 feet tall, with a circumference of 26 feet. (It takes 7 adults joining hands to reach around its base!)

These trees are an integral part of low-country landscapes, often draped with Spanish moss. The wood of this tree is strong and durable, fine-grained and has been valued for flooring and furniture, as well as nearly indestructible shingles. It is also valued as a landscape tree, adaptable to a variety of soils, and is widely cultivated.

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina.

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[Answer: “Bald cypress,” Taxodium distichum]