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Rare Montezuma bald cypress takes its place on roster of champions

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The University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus is home to more than 2,000 trees and large shrubs. Earlier this month, one was declared a champion.

About 40 students, faculty and staff attended a brief ceremony Nov. 16 celebrating the addition of the campus’ sole Montezuma bald cypress to the Louisiana Forestry Association’s Directory of Champions. The association judges native and naturalized trees on their height, circumference and crown spread to determine which make the championship cut.

UL Lafayette’s Montezuma cypress will join the list in 2018. It stands 60 feet, and has a circumference of 16 feet. Its branches spread 80 feet. By comparison, the largest Montezuma cypress in the United States is 70 feet tall and 28 feet in circumference, and spreads 90 feet. It’s in San Benito, a small city in southern Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. 

Unlike the bald cypress, the Montezuma cypress is evergreen and does not produce knees above its root system, said James Foret, an instructor in the School of Geosciences.

“This is the largest Montezuma cypress in Louisiana. There may be a bigger one out there somewhere that we don’t know about, and we’ll get bumped off the list, but for now, it’s the largest," Foret said. 

Whether the Montezuma’s reign is long or short, the University is planning royal accommodations.

The tree, which is behind Billeaud Hall, is boxed in by a parking lot, a greenhouse and a maintenance building. The University plans to remove four parking spots and build a deck with seating around the tree’s base.

That will alleviate the pressure of concrete on its root system, and enable the cypress to receive more water, oxygen and nutrients to improve its long-term viability. 

“It’s a very positive step for the health of the tree,” Foret said.

This month’s ceremony satisfies one of the requirements for the University to maintain its status as a Tree Campus USA. The Arbor Day Foundation coordinates the program, which recognizes colleges and universities for sound management of campus trees.

UL Lafayette has held the designation since 2010, said Gretchen Lacombe Vanicor, director of the University’s Office of Sustainability.

“This tree is pretty magnificent,” Vanicor said, looking up at the Montezuma cypress’ drooping branches carpeted with green, feather-like leaves. “It’s incredible. We want to do what we can to preserve it.”


Photo caption: Members of the campus community gather Nov. 16 to honor UL Lafayette's sole Montezuma bald cypress. It's been added to the Louisiana Forestry Association’s Directory of Champions as the largest known example of the species in the state. (Credit: Doug Dugas / University of Louisiana at Lafayette)