Last month, a fire destroyed an ancient tree in central Florida. At 3,500 years old, the Senator was one of the oldest bald cypress trees in the world, and, at 118 feet, one of the tallest east of the Mississippi. The tree was already 3,000 years old when Ponce de Leon named the land La Florida and it was a popular tourist attraction long before Walt Disney built his theme parks. It was featured on itineraries of America’s natural wonders and on many top-ten lists of the world’s oldest trees—until January, when the Senator burned and collapsed.
The people of Seminole Country will tell you that it was an isolated fire and a surprising death—the fire sprung up suddenly, and spared other trees. It’s believed that lightning struck the hollow tree long before the fire; the tree would have quietly smoldered for several weeks, until finally igniting. The lightning theory has been met with skepticism, perhaps because of the tree’s extraordinary longevity and perceived invincibility. After all, the Senator was an improbable survivor, defying a long history of logging, disease, development, hurricanes, and natural disasters. At a loss for reasonable explanations, some initially suggested arson, and the Division of Forestry is still trying to determine what caused the fire.
Rising from the swamps of the aptly named Big Tree Park, the Senator was featured on historic postcards and snapshots; it was a landmark for early settlers and, later, tourists and school groups. The tree received its name in 1927, when Senator M.O. Overstreet donated the cypress and land to Seminole County. In 1929, President and Mrs Coolidge visited the Senator when dedicating the park. During these recent years, the tall tree was protected by a gate and marked with a plaque. Now, the tree is remembered by a charred bit of wood, a tribute of flowers, and a sign that reads “Rest in Peace Senator.”
The Senator is survived by Lady Liberty, an adjacent cypress. It is 89 feet tall and 2000 years old, and now wears the park’s superlative laurels.
Photo credit: Florida State Archives.
Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at her website.