How about a day trip to a cypress swamp right here in Maryland? The bald cypress trees of Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary located in Prince Frederick, Calvert County are believed to have established themselves about 10,000 years ago. The Battle Creek Cypress Swamp was acquired from the Gray and Keim families and protected by the Nature Conservancy in 1957; the first preserve in Maryland. A trail sign refers to the bald cypress as the “Old Man of the Swamp.” Trees surviving here are about 75 — 200 years old. With over 100 acres this amazing habitat of cypress trees is located just about as far north as bald cypress will thrive and it’s the only cypress swamp on the western shore of the state.

Here in the sanctuary at Battle Creek, named in the 1600s for Battle, England where the colonists in the area originated, there is a quarter-mile boardwalk loop to traverse, a meadow trail of the same length and a nature center to explore. Check to see what’s going on at the nature center. Informative programs are held at various times. You’ll see live animal exhibits at the center which may include outside a rescued barred owl and red-tailed hawk and inside an albino snapping turtle.

Bring your field glasses to spot the many birds flitting among the trees such as the Prothonotary warbler — a pretty little yellow feathered bird with gray wings, purple finch, scarlet tanager, vireos and the Louisiana waterthrush. Depending on the time of year you visit, you’ll see some of the many avians that call this swamp home for at least part of the year. You may spy flying squirrels, woodpeckers, or frogs if you tread silently through this treasure.

As you wander through this mini gem of a park, relish the quietude of the place. Take in the swathes of airy ferns and marvel at the knees of the cypress trees mimicking the form of the trunk itself. The cypress knees are part of the root system of these trees and allow the trees to breathe in their watery home, or at least that is one hypothesis. These knees may help secure the trees in place which have a shallow root system. It is not fully understood why these mound-like knees form.

In the magical swamp, you’ll marvel at these unique cypress trees, some over 100 feet tall and three to six feet in girth toward the bottom narrowing as they climb. These giant trees, related to the redwoods and sequoias of California, are pyramidal in shape and their green leaves are fringe-like almost as pine needles. The deciduous leaves of these unique conifers become an auburn hue in the Fall and then drop to the ground. The name “bald” cypress originates from the fact that these trees cast their leaves early in the Fall season. The cypress has small, orb-shaped cones that form at the branch ends. These cones start out green and eventually turn brown. At that time, they release 16 winged seeds to the whimsy of the breeze, water and animal life.

These ancient trees can survive for thousands of years, one of the longest living on earth. Past logging has eliminated very old stands. In our area, they make their home in the swamps, moist woodlands and rivers of the Delmarva. In Maryland, the two main areas of cypress growth are in Battle Creek and the Pocomoke River on the Eastern Shore. The northernmost collection of these conifers is in Trap Pond State Park in Delaware. The Patriarch Tree on the James Branch Water Trail in Delaware is estimated to be 600 years old. This tree is about 127 feet tall and has a base circumference of about 24 feet. The oldest known tree on the east coast is located in North Carolina and is estimated to be 2,624 years old. Cypress trees located any farther north than the Delmarva are not native bald cypress but some other nonnative variety.

The decay resistant wood of the cypress is used in the production of such interior and exterior items as piers, fence posts, rail road ties, doors, furniture, shingles and barrels. Some Native Americans fashioned canoes from the cypress tree. The wood is moderately hard (classified as a softwood but having the qualities of a hardwood), quite strong and stable over time.

In the sanctuary there are picnic tables just waiting for you to enjoy a nice meal or snack, always a welcome treat when on an out of doors foray. Sit, relax and ponder the wonders you’ve just encountered, the unique bald cypress, “Old Man of the Swamp,” the oldest of trees on the Atlantic coast.

Barbara enjoys traveling as often as possible and can be reached at [email protected].

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Barbara Aiken

Barbara enjoys history and is particularly interested in the history of Maryland.