Visiting Denizens in the Bayou

     Whenever I think about Bald Cypress, Taxodium distichum, it always conjures up memories of Jerry Lewis and the MDA Labor Day Telethon’s he did. Raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Mr. Lewis would often perform the Radio Announcer’s Test, a complicated tongue-twister testing one’s memory. Professional announcers were asked to recite the entire test, within a single breath, without ever sounding winded. It is here, specifically the 10th and final line where the words “denizens of the deep” appears. And for whatever reason, I have always had a sort of a word association with this phrase and the aquatic Bald Cypress.

     This past September my friend Tony and I had yet another excellent adventure. Surprising me with Saint’s-Cowboys tickets in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, our friend Brenda helped arrange a whirlwind 48-hour trip. And while I was “over the moon” excited about the experience I had to ask, will there be enough time to take a swamp tour and gawk at Louisiana’s “denizens of the deep?”

     Cajun Encounters offers a fascinating few hours on the Bayou where you not only see Taxodium in their natural habitat, Honey Island Swamp also has ample numbers of raccoon, alligator and wild boar. Captain Eddie, our nautical extraordinaire, seemed brilliant with all things swamp related and beyond. Eddie masterfully handled our boat as if it was a simple extension of his hand. Along the way our captain pointed out Black Willow, Salix nigra, and told us of how Native Americans used this plant to make tea as well as how its bark contains a chemical compound similar to aspirin. The next plant “ID” seemed to be pointed directly at me. Perhaps because I was more interested in the trees than the subjects inhabiting them? Asked what the plant was, I exclaimed “Swamp or Redbay Laurel”, Persea borbonia! Another native thriving, in this case, in waterlogged soil. Redbay Laurel has an aroma similar to European laurel or bay tree, Laurus nobilis, and apparently can be used for similar culinary purposes. Spanish moss, Tillandsia usneoides, seemed to drape itself from every Bald Cypress, swamp gum, live oak and red maple in the swamp. A fibrous and rootless perennial related to pineapple, Spanish moss is not a true moss, nor is it native to Spain.  “French settlers in the southeastern U.S. in the 1700s called this plant Barbe Espagnol (Spanish beard) in reference to the long beards worn by Spanish explorers of that time. Several legends suggest that the name Spanish moss is simply a refinement on that French name” (Missouri Botanical Garden). A hollowed out swamp tupelo/swamp blackgum, Nyssa sylvatica var. biflora, caught our attention next on our trip. Captain Eddie told us that termites created its enormous cavity and that the honey bees would soon be on their way. Capable of surviving in “organic muck”, swamp tupelo is an important wildlife species and often planted as an ornamental tree. Giant Salvinia, Salvinia molesta, while pretty to look at, skim coating the swamps water surface, is actually an invasive aquatic. Native to South America and often confused with Duckweed, Lemna minor, this “floating fern” quickly grows and is dangerous to the health of ecosystems.

     Finally, Louisiana’s State Tree, the Bald Cypress! Cypress wood, while not only beautiful is resistant to decay. Used for caskets, fortresses and ship building, these tree forests help protect the shoreline from violent storms. Long lived “denizens” become towering pyramidal trees, capable of surviving well within the belly of a swamp. “Trunks are buttressed (flared or fluted) at the base, and when growing in water, often develop distinctive, knobby root growths (“knees”) which protrude above the water surface around the tree” (Missouri Botanical Garden). And on many of the “knees” we saw was what looked like pink bubblegum. In fact, they were Apple Snail eggs (invasive mollusks), believed to be having a negative impact on native wildlife. Soft, feathery, flat green needles turn a cinnamon-brown on Bald Cypress in the fall too. Certainly one of my favorite trees capable of surviving almost anywhere it seems.

     Following our tour, Tony and I stumbled upon an art gallery in New Orleans on Royal Street. Inside we found works by artist Frank Relle. One work in particular spoke to us as it was a giant Taxodium photographed in Lake Fausse Pointe State Park. Located in St. Martinville, Louisiana this monstrous tree almost certainly has company in his surroundings? Perhaps there are “Ten, lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who all stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery, all at the same time.” It would have been fun to have had that conversation with Mr. Jerry Lewis.