Henry William Ravenel (1814-1887) was a native South Carolinian. He has been considered one of the foremost Southern botanists of the mid- and late 19th Century, especially as a scientist studying and describing many new species of fleshy fungi. His collection of pressed, dried vascular plant specimens resides here at the University of South Carolina (his alma mater), a collection which is still very much in use by scientists and natural historians. Ravenel had quite a number of botanical colleagues, one being Thomas Meehan, a well-respected botanist and arborist in Philadelphia, and one of the main forces behind continuance and flourishing of Bartram’s Garden, in Philadelphia (which you visit, if you ever get the chance!). Ravenel’s journal entry indicates that his friend Meehan was interested in cypress, and that’s our Mystery Plant this week.
The word “cypress” has been used as the common name for a variety of different plants, but here in the Southeast we know of cypress, generally, as stately conifers which grow in very wet places. But in the Southeast, there are two different cypress species. Being conifers, both of the cypress species we have produce fairly massive, hard cones (the “balls” referred to in the journal entry), which, of course, would be full of seeds, and relatively easy to sprout and then grow in Philadelphia. We’re not really sure which of the two species Meehan wanted from Ravenel. Maybe he wanted both.)
Perhaps the most unusual thing about cypress species is that they are deciduous. Our Mystery cypress has short, needle-like leaves spiraled around a short shoot, closely hugging the stem. In the autumn, the whole shoot falls away from the tree…not the individual leaves. (The same thing happens in the other cypress species, except that its needle-like leaves are arranged to look more or less like a feather, not so closely hugging the shoot. But both species are indeed deciduous.)
Our Mystery cypress is a plant which is widespread in the coastal plain counties from Virginia to Louisiana, and including practically all of Florida. Its habitat is typically wet ponds, or “domes”, often prevalent in Carolina bays, or other isolated wetlands. It is not, however, normally seen as a component of river swamps…which is the kind of place where its “sister” species likes to live.
[For more on the life and times of H. W. Ravenel, consider USC’s richly interactive web portal “Plants & Planter”, which combines aspects of southern history, science, and horticulture, available at ( http://ravenel.cdh.sc.edu/ ) which allows visitors to browse Ravenel’s handwritten journal and herbarium.] (Photo by Linda Lee.)