Losing one of the world’s oldest trees, The Senator
When The Senator, the world’s largest pond cypress, was a tiny sapling the pharaoh Tutankhamun was 50 years away from taking the throne in Egypt and Jesus would not be born for another 1400 years.
The Senator, at an estimated 3500 years old was not only the largest of its kind but was considered the 5th oldest living tree in the world when it was destroyed by fire. Before that fire it could be found in central Florida in the Big Tree Park.
Somehow it had been miraculously spared from the logger’s saw during the Florida lumber boom of the 1800s and 1900s and eventually had a park created around it in 1927. People had been visiting it for decades and WPA workers finally built a boardwalk so seeing didn’t include either wading or hopping from hammock to hammock to get to it.
Before a 1925 hurricane took the top off the Senator measured 165 feet tall with a circumference of 17.5 feet. After the storm the tree was still an impressive 118 feet tall. It was estimated to contain 5100 cubic feet of wood and was not only the largest pond cypress but also the largest tree east of the Mississippi in the United States.
Generations of Florida school kids poured out of yellow buses to stand at its base and look up and imagine what the state was like when it was filled with these giant trees. People picnicked and hiked and had romantic trysts in Big Tree Park located in Longwood, Florida.
But all that history, all those 3500 years came to an end on the night of Jan. 16, 2012 when 26 year-old Sara Barnes set the tree on fire while smoking crack. She had climbed inside a hollow part of the tree and then started a fire so she could see better. The Senator caught fire and burned for several hours. Barnes took photos of the burning tree and later showed friends, telling them she couldn’t believe she had destroyed a tree older than Jesus (according to newspaper and TV reports at the time of her arrest). She didn’t call anyone to report the fire. Her trial is still pending.
Now several Florida artisans have been given parts of the tree to turn into art. (See associated page for Bob Hughes.)
A clone of The Senator aptly named The Phoenix has been planted near the playground in the park. And a mere 40 feet away from where The Senator stood is another big pond cypress, Lady Liberty. She is not quite as big, standing 89 feet high and 10 feet in diameter, and not as old, estimated at having reached 2000 years but she is still very impressive and among the top 20 oldest individual trees in the world.
Photos this page courtesy Florida State Archives.
© Copyright 2014: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison & Lee Brock for MyOldFlorida.com.