Friends Big Tree Walk, October 26 and November 9, 2003

By John Cely

We had a good contingent of “swamp trompers” and beautiful weather to see some of Congaree’s famous old growth forest on two Sunday afternoon walks. We made our first stop at a large, 14 feet circumference swamp chestnut oak, Quercus michauxii, just off the service road. The swamp chestnut oak, also called basket oak and cow oak, is one of seven oak species growing in the floodplain. The significance of Congaree is highlighted by the fact that of the seven species, two - Shumard and overcup - are pending national champions, and three, the swamp chestnut oak, cherrybark oak, and laurel oak, are state champions. Swamp chestnut oaks are members of the white oak group and can attain large size in the Congaree, with some circumferences equaling or exceeding 18 feet.

After crossing the bridge at Cedar Creek, we hiked down the River/Oak Ridge Trail then left the trail and looked at some trees in the forest behind Wise Lake. We stopped at two large sweetgums growing next to one another called the “twin sisters.” The sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, is by far the dominant canopy tree in Congaree’s bottomland forest. They grow quickly in the fertile alluvial soil and reach enormous size. These two are “only” 12 feet in circumference. The state champ is in Congaree and is nearly 17 feet in circumference and 169 feet tall. One of the greatest attributes of the Congaree is that the trees are allowed to grow to their maximum size before they eventually die and recycle back to the earth. One of the most impressive trees in the swamp is a national co-champion persimmon, exceeding 7 feet in circumference and 132 feet tall!

This sweetgum, nearly 15 feet in circumference, would be a champion anywhere else but Congaree. As Dr. Robert Jones reported in his survey of Congaree’s big trees several years ago, this swamp has been documented as having one of the tallest hardwood forests in the temperate world. Many of the oaks, pines, sweetgums, sycamores, and others routinely exceed 150 feet in height.

After leaving the big sweetgums, we did some log hopping across Hammond’s Gut and walked to Hampton Gut where we saw the “Hampton cypress.” This is the same tree in the photograph, with Harry standing next to it, located in the Visitor’s Center. More than 40 years ago Harry started taking reporters, photographers, naturalists, officials from the National Park Service, and anyone else who would listen, to this tree to publicize the extraordinary qualities of a place little known except to a few local fishermen and hunters. The Hampton cypress measures 23 feet around the buttress and although larger cypress have been found in the swamp, including the state champ that has a circumference of 26 feet, it seems fitting that Harry’s cypress, as befits a man that was 6 feet 4 inches tall, was later found to be Congaree’s tallest at 148 feet.

Bald cypress are famous for their cypress knees. The function of these exposed root protuberances still remains speculative but they definitely add ambience to any swamp setting. We measured one “knee” close to the Hampton cypress that was seven feet high!

We crossed back over Hammond’s Gut and resumed hiking down the River/Oak Ridge Trail until we came to several large cherrybark oaks, Quercus pagodifolia, growing on the edge of the trail. This oak is known for its large buttress and enormous crown spread, sometimes approaching 100 feet. Their mushroom shape, top-heavy profile and shallow root system make these large oaks susceptible to being toppled by high winds. We saw one nearby that had been on the ground for 14 years – a victim of Hurricane Hugo. The largest measured cherrybark in Congaree has a circumference of 23 feet.

The cherrybark is a member of the red oak group and this year has been a good one for red oak acorn production. Acorns are the staff of life for many swamp critters. One species closely tied to red oak acorns is the beautiful Red-headed Woodpecker. Their primary diet in winter consists of the small, “bite-size” acorns that they store in bark crevices and cracks for later consumption. Congaree supports a good wintering population of Red-headed Woodpeckers in years of bumper acorn crops but the birds disappear when acorn production is poor.

We ended our tour with a brief stop at a beautiful beech groove a little further down the trail. Beech don’t like to get their feet wet and grow only on the highest ridges in the swamp. The largest ones at Congaree have circumferences of 8-10 feet and are more than 100 feet tall.

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Last modified: May 11, 2008 by Edward Kujawski (focs@mindspring.com)
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