By Monika Maeckle
“You know the story of the Geronimo tree, right?”
Me, neither. Most of us know the gargantuan Bald Cypress tree that stands south of the Commerce St. bridge near St. Mary’s on the San Antonio River as the Ben Milam Cypress. Anyone who’s ridden the Yanaguana Riverboat cruise has heard a variation on the tale from their guide: Ben Milam, an Alamo fighter, took a Mexican sniper’s bullet in the head as the sniper laid wait in this tree.
Yet locals like city worker Andrew Garcia, quoted above, and even Senior Horticulturist for the City of San Antonio’s downtown operations Juan Guerra call the big, old Bald Cypress “Geronimo.” “I don’t know why we call it that, but we do,” said Guerra.
Geronimo, an Apache warrior with a reputation for cruelty and creativity, seemed to have nine lives. He eluded capture for decades in the pioneer days, until 1886 when he was finally captured and sent to Ft. Sill, in Lawton, Oklahoma. He lived there until his death at age 90, in 1909.
Ben Milam, on the other hand, died on December 7, 1835. After rallying 300 volunteers with his famous plea: “Who will go with old Ben Milam into Bexar?” Milam was soon shot dead in the head by a Mexican sniper. Legend has Milam either taking a drink of water from the river or relieving himself on the Bald Cypress. Only the Ben Milam Cypress knows for sure, having witnessed, even facilitated, the historic event.
Bald Cypress typically thrive along waterways and can live to be thousands of years old. This fine specimen must be at least 200 years old and sports twin trunks–the result, speculates Juan Garcia, of flood damage. “We think it might have been one tree in the past with a single trunk,” he said. “Maybe it broke from a flood, then grew back as two sprouted trees that eventually grew together.”
When their roots are submerged in water, Bald Cypress shoot up knobby, above-ground “knees,” a signature of the species. Knees are a reaction to the root function of taking in oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide. They can’t do that if they’re under water, thus they push up “knees” above ground, accomplishing the gas exchange with the adaptation.
Bald Cypress is a fantastic, native landscape tree and can climb 75-100 feet. They grow fast as youngsters, then slow down in maturity (just like many of us). Their fragrant seeds reflect a cone-like structure and drop in late summer, providing wildlife fodder for birds and small mammals. Their feathery leaves turn rust orange with the advent of Fall. Woodworkers value the wood of Bald Cypress for its strength and resistance to moisture, tapping its durability for use in docks, ships, salad bowls and situations that require toughness in moist conditions.
The patio of the Mexican Manhattan Restaurant offers an excellent vantage point for appreciating the Ben Milam Bald Cypress.
The Ben Milam Bald Cypress
Species: Taxodium distichum
Height: 90 feet
Canopy: about 98 feet
Diameter at breast height: 94 inches
Circumference: 25 feet
Age: 200+ The tree was large enough for a sniper to climb and shoot from it in 1835.
Location: Behind the Drury Inn, near the Commerce St. bridge near main plaza between Soledad and St. Mary’s.
Also known as: “The Geronimo Tree,” Swamp Cypress, Southern Cypress, Little Leaf Linden
NOTES: Diameter at breast height, or DBH, is a standard of measuring tree diameter at four-and-a-half feet off the ground.
*Regarding the age of trees, arborists and foresters are reluctant to cite them. The only accurate way to determine a tree’s age is with an increment boring test, whereby a hollow drill bit is bored into the tree trunk. Very traumatic for the tree. Since soil and water availability determine tree growth, some trees grow huge in several decades while others live a century and can be much smaller. The tree’s temperament is also a factor.
In short, when it comes to determining tree ages, size doesn’t matter. We will cite educated guesses by certified arborists for the ages of featured trees, unless scientific or historical data are available.
Have a favorite heritage tree? Send us a photo, a story and we’ll consider it for inclusion to firstname.lastname@example.org.
More on San Antonio’s trees:
Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. She covers nature in the urban environment for this website. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @monikam.