Visiting one of the oldest living organisms in the world was at one point quite easy. Thought to be the eighth oldest tree in the world, the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) affectionately known as the “Senator,” once stood in a small park located in Longwood, FL.
Its estimated age of 3,500 years made it only slightly younger than the carefully guarded Great Basin Bristlecone Pine of California known as Methuselah. To get a good sense of how old this tree really was, one must keep in mind the “Senator” was alive not only during the time of Jesus, but for 1500 years before that when the Greeks destroyed Troy, the Olmecs were powerful in Mexico, Solomon succeeded King David, and Stonehenge was being constructed. Unlike the secret location of the ancient pine, this cypress is very accessible to the public.
The “Senator” was the largest tree east of the Mississippi and stood at 118 feet tall with a circumference of 35 feet. A hurricane in 1925 damaged the top of the tree, shortening it from its original height of 165 feet. The tremendous size of the tree made it useful to both Indians and early settlers as a marker when traveling through the area. Tourists have frequented the area to view the tree since the 1800’s and the land on which it resides was donated to Seminole County by the late Senator M.O. Overstreet to ensure the preservation of the tree. It was in memory of Senator Overstreet that the cypress received its present name. Following the donation in 1927, a ceremony hosted by President Calvin Coolidge, officially opened the property to the public in 1929.
Surrounded today by the Spring Hammock Preserve, the “Senator” shared space with a companion tree known as “Lady Liberty.” This companion Bald Cypress is a comparatively youthful 2,000 years old and stands 89 feet in height with a circumference of 32 feet.
Unfortunately on February 29, 2012, Seminole County police arrested a woman who confessed to causing a fire that destroyed the Senator. Sarah Barnes and a friend were smoking inside the tree, and using an open flame as a guide. After the fire broke out, Barnes took photos and video with her cell phone and later showed them to several people which led someone to tip off investigators. Apparently she left the fire burning, and the tree was engulfed days later, burning from the inside out. Though the park is still open, the tree is no longer standing. Barnes was heard to brag that she burned down a tree older than Jesus, and she might not even get jail time.
In 2014, county workers planted a 50-foot-tall clone in Big Tree Park (named “The Phoenix,” via a county-wide elementary school contest) and a 60-foot clone of the old tree in Reiter Park (also located in Longwood, Florida). There were 10 trees cloned from “The Senator” in the 1990’s, and these two were from the seven that survived and flourished. Of course, it will take thousands of years for these trees to grow to the size of their “papa.”
“The Senator” will also live on in various artworks created from the charred wood and ashes of this once mighty tree. County officials realized future generations of Seminole residents would not be able to see the ancient tree that lived at the time of Florida’s Timucua Indians and 1,500 years before the birth of Jesus. So commissioners awarded several tons of the tree’s remnants to artisans to create artworks, with the agreement that it would be donated to the county. 18 organizations also received remnants for display, including the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. What was left over was offered to the public.
Fortunately, “Lady Liberty” still stands in Big Tree Park, not far from where “The Senator” once stood proud and tall.
Know Before You Go
This park is located on General Hutchinson Parkway between U.S. 17-92 and State Road 427 north of Longwood, FL.