December 1, 2008
(AP) - An ancient bald cypress dating back 1,000 years or more has died in a remote swamp 80 miles southeast of Richmond.
Dubbed Big Mama, the largest tree in Virginia towered over Cypress Bridge, a swamp in the Nottoway River. The 40 acres of virgin wilderness is so remote, its existence wasn't reported until 2005.
The cypress was at least 1,000 years old, and perhaps older, experts said.
Byron Carmean, a retired horticulture teacher who discovered Big Mama in the fall of 2005, estimated its age at between 1,500 and 2,000 years.
Observers first detected the tree's declining health one year ago. They reported seeing reddish sap oozing from its trunk.
"We didn't know what it was, but we didn't think it was a good thing," said Tom Smith, director of Virginia's Natural Heritage Program, which works to protect the state's natural wonders.
Then, in the spring, when other cypresses were showing new leaves, Big Mama was barren.
"I thought, maybe she's just a little slow this year," Carmean said. "But there was more to it than that."
Carmean said boring insects may have caused the sap to ooze, hastening the tree's demise. No one really knows, though.
While winds had blown away Big Mama's top and most of her large limbs, the tree had survived centuries of hurricanes, floods and droughts.
"It's a sad thing," said Smith. "It's so rare that we get to see and touch something that is alive and has been around for that period of time."
Big Mama was 123 feet tall, with a massive, flared base that measured 12½ feet wide. Big Mama was declared Virginia's largest tree in October 2005, supplanting an old tulip poplar in Bedford County.
All but 1 percent of cypress-tupelo forests have been cut in the Southeast, experts say.
Still, cypress is a remarkably durable wood, meaning that Big Mama's remains will likely stand for decades more to impress children and adults.
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