- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) | An ancient bald cypress dating back 1,000 years or more has died in a remote swamp 80 miles southeast of Richmond.

The tree, named Big Mama, is the largest tree in Virginia and towers over Cypress Bridge, a swamp in the Nottoway River. The 40 acres of virgin wilderness is so remote that the tree wasn’t discovered until 2005.

The cypress was at least 1,000 years old, experts said. However, Byron Carmean, a retired horticulture teacher who discovered the tree, thinks it’s 1,500 to 2,000 years old.

Observers noticed the tree’s health was declining about a year ago when they detected a 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,” Mr. Carmean said. “But there was more to it than that.”

He said boring insects may have caused the sap to ooze, hastening the tree’s demise. However, experts are uncertain about the exact cause.

Though winds had blown away Big Mama’s top and most of her large limbs, the tree has survived centuries of hurricanes, floods and droughts.

“It’s a sad thing,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s so rare that we get to see and touch something that is alive and has been around for that period of time.”

When measured, Big Mama was 123 feet high with a base 35 feet around. The tree was declared the state’s largest 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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