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The Senator - Florida's Big Tree
title graphic

by Jack Scheper

This "big bubba" of the forest has been a Central Florida landmark for thousands of years. He 's the subject of myth, misinformation and confusion. But most of all he is an awe inspiring monument of beauty, endurance and grandeur. His name is The Senator and he is one handsome brute!

He resides in Seminole County, just north of Orlando and a short drive from the Disney attraction area. Come meet Florida's oldest and largest resident. We'll even tell you how to meet him in person!

Dedicated To the Memory of Florida's Governor Lawton Chiles
Just hours before hearing the sad news of the death of Florida's Governor Chiles in December 1998, I was researching this article and found an old newspaper story that indicated that he was a big fan of The Senator. In 1987, then Senator Chiles, was involved in a project to plant a descendent of the The Senator on the U.S. Capital grounds in Washington D.C.

So these pages are dedicated to Governor Chiles in memory of his many contributions to our state, and in particular, to his appreciation and protection of Florida's natural treasures. One day I will have the means to see that a grove of the Senator's offspring is planted in Tallahassee and dedicated to Governor Chiles' memory.

Look closely and you can see a copper cable running the length of the trunk from the lightning rod at the top of the tree to "ground".
Meet The Senator
The Senator is a very large and very old baldcypress tree. His scientific name is Taxodium distichum. Along with the magnolia blossom, the baldcypress is symbolic of the "Old South". It is commonly seen growing in swamps and waterways by knobby protrusions called "knees" and draped with Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).

Baldcypress has soft feathery leaves that turn orange in fall before falling to the ground - unusual behavior for a conifer (i.e. a cone bearing plant like pine). The baldcypress's cones are spherical and about 1 in (2.5 cm) in diameter which takes us to a point of confusion surrounding The Senator. Several references state that he bears cones that are 11 in (30 cm) in diameter! I suspect that this inaccuracy is due to an error made by the sign painter a long time ago. It's a good thing too - that's as big as a basketball and would pack a lethal punch falling from The Senator's lofty heights!

Because of this height, he's been equipped with a lightning rod for protection during storms. Look closely at the picture at left and you can see the 1/4 in (0.6 cm) copper cable that runs the length of the trunk safely grounding him to the forest floor.

The Senator
Look closely and you can see a copper cable running the length of the trunk from the lightning rod at the top of the tree to "ground".
He's Big
Even though he doesn't produce 11 in (30 cm) cones, The Senator is still a big guy! The photograph is of the sign that displays his official statistics. These are based on estimates made in 1946 by the American Forestry Association.

The sign reports that the tree is 126 ft (38.4 m) in height - I've been unable to confirm if any measurements have occurred since 1946. The Senator was said to have been much taller, at about 165 ft (50.3 m), prior to 1926 when the crown was damaged by a hurricane and reduced in height by more than 30 ft (9.1 m). Perhaps it is time to remeasure and update the big guy's "stats" - he's sure to have grown a few feet over the last fifty-some years!

The Senator's trunk is 17.5 ft (17.5 m) in diameter with a circumference of 47 ft (14.3 m), Other references report a circumference of 54 ft (16.5 m), perhaps this is a later measurement? The sign also informs that the the tree contains over 50,000 board feet of lumber.

But He's Not the Biggest...
Although the sign states that The Senator is the "Largest Cypress Tree in U.S.A.", this is unfortunately not the case. For one he is not a cypress tree (member of the genus Cupressus) but a baldcypress tree (genus Taxodium). Secondly, he's not the largest baldcypress either.

In the middle of this century there was disagreement over The Senator's heritage - namely what species is he? In the 1950s it was determined that the tree was not a baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) but rather a pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens), a very close cousin.

Once this reclassification took place it was determined that not only was The Senator a pond cypress, but he was the BIGGEST pond cypress in the world!

In 1954 The Senator was featured in the Saturday Evening Post and described as " the largest tree east of the Rockies". But around that same time it was reported that The Senator may have competition from a baldcypress in Southern Mexico that was reported by a Missouri timber engineer to be 140 ft (42.7 m) tall and 39 ft (11.9 m) in diameter (measured 40 ft above the ground) and at least 4000 years old - at the time believed to be the oldest living thing on earth. There is also a competitor reported in Weakley County Tennessee.

In 1964, an article in the Tallahassee paper reported the dispute over whether The Senator is a baldcypress or a pond cypress. At that time it was recognized as the largest living Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens) in the world by the American Forestry Association.

During the last 30 years The Senator was once again classified as baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) - but we love him anyway even if he's not the largest.

big tree's crown
The Senator is deciduous and his crown is bare during the Winter.
And He's Old - Really Old...
The Senator's official age is 3500 years plus or minus a 100 years. Although this might not make him the oldest tree in America it at least makes him one of the oldest (ok, so there's an old geezer out in California that's 7000 years old but he's just a scrawny little bristlecomb pine...).

One reference states that an "increment borer" was used by the Department of Forestry to remove a core sample from the trunk. From this core the tree's annual growth rings were counted to come to a very accurate measurement of age. Other references indicate that this reported age is actually an estimate made in 1936 by the American Forestry Association. Estimate or not it is a certainty that this tree sprouted about the time when the Egyptians were raising their first pyramids along the Nile. At 15 centuries The Senator was already a forest giant when Christ was born. And by the time Ponce de Leon explored Florida this tree was a 3,000 year old landmark that looked much as it does today, guiding the native people as they traveled the nearby Saint Johns River.

The Companion
The Companion

A little over one hundred years ago, The Senator presided over three other huge cypresses. The years took their toll on two of the trees and The Senator now shares the Big Tree Park with only one other big baldcypress - his name is The Companion. He stands more than 40 yards from The Senator but is always in his shadow - he is the Ed McMahon of the plant world. The companion has neither plaque or sign, not many even know he has a name.

mystery stuff
I haven't visited the Big Trees in several years so I don't know if The Companion still wears this electronic headgear (wish I knew what it was!)
The Companion plays host to some sort of instrumentation package that resides in his crown. The apparatus consists of an 8 ft (20.3 m) (about) length of large diameter, white PVC pipe situated vertically between branches. An antenna lays horizontally across the top of the pipe. When first noticed, I thought it might be a weather balloon's payload or a scientific experiment or even bracing to support a weak branch. I now suspect that it is nothing more glamorous than an antenna for the county's dispatch system (heck of a place to put it!) I have contacted the county inquiring as to the purpose of this apparatus but I have not yet heard back...

The Senator's southwest face

His History
By the time Europeans arrived in the area, The Senator and three other large baldcypress trees were already landmarks to the native people. The quartet loomed above the forest and was used as a navigational landmark by boatmen on the nearby Saint John's River. By the late 19th century early sightseers were buying buggy rides through the swamp to reach a rough walkway of palmetto logs that lead to the base of the big tree.

Moses O. Overstreet (some references indicate his first name was "Meade") owned the property at that time. He was a local businessman who made his fortune producing turpentine from the pine trees on his vast land holdings. His business empire grew to include sawmills, hotels and retail stores. Avery influential member of the community, he was elected State Senator from Orange Country.

In March of 1927, a Mr. R.S. Entzminger, president of the Longwood Florida Chamber of Commerce approached Senator Overstreet about donating 10 acres of swamp land located just north of the city. The land would be used as a park and more importantly to preserve several huge cypress trees that grew there. The largest tree was named The Senator in his honor.

By the late twenties, visitors were commenting on a couple of huge trunks that lay decomposing near the path to the Senator. Local lore held that the tree had fallen 40 years earlier (they have long since turned to compost). Now only two of the big tree quartet remain: The Senator and The Companion.

President Coolidge and the lovely Mrs. Coolidge pose with The Senator in 1929.

In 1929, a walkway of palmetto logs was constructed to provide easier access as the new park became a reality. A decorative wrought iron fence was created to encircle the tree in order to prevent lovers from memorializing their "true love" in disfigured tree bark - a big problem at the time.

To celebrate the improvements, former President Calvin Coolidge visited the Senator for the purpose of dedicating the new park. The President placed a bronze plaque at the base of the tree to commemorate the occasion .

In the thirties the WPA came in and improved the site by raising the elevation in places to provide dry areas for picnicking and parking. In 1945 Coolidge's plaque and the decorative iron fence were stolen by vandals and never recovered.

The park was operated by the local Jaycees for a number of years and in 1960 a bond referendum was passed to allow the country to acquire parklands. In 1980 the area was designated a priority acquisition by the Department of Natural Resources and The Senator's home became a part of the Spring Hammock Nature Park.

His Habitat
The Spring Hammock Nature Park is mainly composed of swampy land called a hydric hammock. It shares these surroundings with with other moisture-loving trees including sabal palms, blue palm, magnolias (southern and sweetbay), tupelos, swamp maple and water oak among others. The soil is very high in organic matter and supports dense growths of vegetation The rich soil is kept moist by mineral springs that bubble up to form small streams.

base of the tree
Here's the space at the base of The Senator and as you can see he has no need for knees!

Unlike most cypress trees, the Senator does not have many "knees", the woody protrusions that grow up from the roots to (it is thought) provide structural stability and oxygen to trees growing in wet conditions. The knees that are present are small (about 1ft/0.3m tall). A few larger knees are present but these are in various states of decomposition. It is theorized that as tree became more and more massive, the support afforded by the knees became less critical. Due to the construction of drainage systems for nearby highways, the swamp is a drier place with fewer periods of standing water which would reduce the need for supplementing the roots with oxygen.

The Senator
The Senator and his associate, The Companion, preside over the ten acre Big Tree Park. A 150 yard elevated boardwalk provides easy access to the big trees from the parking area (notice the orange tree growing to the left of the entrance to the walkway).. You have only one or two minutes to enjoy the tropical looking vegetation before you round a curve and behold The Senator. Note the small stream as you approach. This is the mineral rich water said to have helped nourish the trees to their massive proportions. Proceed another 40 yards and you'll encounter The Companion. The boardwalk is handicapped accessible and has benches where you can relax and enjoy the scene. Be sure to check out the ball moss (Tillandsia spp) growing on many of the tree trunks. These are air plants that derive all of their nourishment from the air, they are fascinating plants that produce brilliantly colored flower spikes in early spring.

Big Tree Park:
* has no admission fee
* opens at 8:00 AM
* closes at 6:00 PM from November to March and at 8:00 PM from April through October
* has picnic facilities (tables, shelters, grills)
* has restroom facilities

Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit is when the mosquito population is at a minimum. There tends to be fewer of these pests during the winter than summer, fewer at midday than at evening and fewer on sunny days than on overcast. Dry days with low humidity are best, while high humidity and rain make perfect mosquito weather. Bug repellent is recommended for summer visits.

How to Get There
Big Tree Park is located in Seminole County, less than a half hours ride from downtown Orlando.
Coming from Orlando?
- Take I-4 East from Orlando
- Use Exit State Route 434, Longwood and turn Right
- Proceed 6 miles to US 17/92 and turn left
- Drive north on US 17/92 for 1 mile, then turn left on General Hutchinson Parkway

Coming from Daytona?
- Take I-4 West from Daytona
- Take Exit 51 and turn left onto Lake Mary Boulevard, drive 5 miles to US 17/92
- Turn right on US 17/92 and drive 3 miles to General Hutchison Parkway and turn right

From either direction...
-
Follow the General Hutchinson Parkway through the lush sabal palm hammock for 1 mile, the Big Tree Park is on the left.

Visit the Floridata Reference to learn more about some of the the plants that share The Senator's home including: baldcypress, tulip poplar, southern magnolia, sweet bay, swamp maple, sabal palm and blue palm.

Update: Sadly, on January 16, 2012, The Senator caught fire and was burned nearly to the ground. The cause of the fire is under investigation. Read more at tampabay.com. I wonder if an installation of PVC and electronic equipment similar to that on The Companion tree might have had a role in this tragedy. Even if that is not the case, it's just plain dumb to use a living tree as a communications tower. I hope the equipment has been removed by now.

2/15/01; updated 2/10/04, 4/25/11, 1/18/12


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