VII: Cypress

How cypress became a tree of mourning.

septidi, the 17th of Frimaire, Year CCXXXI
A stately Italian cypress cavalcade. Photo by Julian Schöll / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is septidi, the 17th of Frimaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate les cyprès, trees that point to the sky.

The oldest tree in the world is believed to be a cypress. This is breaking news, as a pair of bristlecone pines in California and Nevada had been holding that verification for a long time, each one dated to about 4,900 years old. However, researchers are about to publish a paper showing a Patagonian cypress (Fitzroya cupressoids) in Chile called Alerce Milenario is at least 5,000 years old, and estimated to be turning 5,485 this year. The tree is almost 200 feet tall and has a wide girth, which made safely procuring a core for dendrochronology (ring counting) difficult. The same researchers who took the latest sample also estimate that only 28% of the tree is still living, but, significantly, the root system is still active. This puts the tree's sapling emerging at about the same time as the first human writing, the oldest-known depiction of the wheel, and the earliest Egyptian mummy.

There are just so many things to talk about when it comes to cypress, and so many kinds of cypress to investigate. There are the bald cypress, which live in swamps and have breathing "knees" just like mangroves. There are the super-tall Eastern red cedars that we exposed a few days ago as being in the cypress family (though this is now a matter of debate). And there are Japanese cypress, which are a favorite for cultivating as bonsai.

But let's dwell today on the Italian cypress, a Mediterranean varietal that has the most worldwide brand recognition, thanks to its narrow and pointy shape and its propensity for hanging around old graveyards. These traits are so ancient, the Greeks made up a whole story about why this happens.