Heritage Tree: the Ben Milam Bald Cypress

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Bald Cypress leaves and seeds

Longevity, feathery leaves and conelike seeds make the Bald Cypress a desirable native landscape choice.

Monika MaeckleBy 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.

Ben Milam Bald Cypress

Ben Milam Bald Cypress stands behind the Drury Inn near the Commerce Bridge on the San Antonio River.

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 Bald Cypress

The Ben Milam Bald Cypress: according to legend, once the roosting spot for a Mexican sniper.

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.

Big Bald Cypress

The Ben Milam Cypress’ enormous girth suggests it is way older than 200 years. City Forester Michael Nentwich and Senior Horticulturist Juan Guerra take its measurements: 25 feet circumference!

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 leaves and seeds

Longevity, feathery leaves and conelike seeds make the Bald Cypress a desirable native landscape choice.

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 hello@rivardreport.com.

More on San Antonio’s trees:

San Antonio’s Initiative to Plant One Million Trees by 2020

Read our weekly series on Heritage 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 monika@therivardreport.com or follow her on Twitter @monikam.

8 thoughts on “Heritage Tree: the Ben Milam Bald Cypress

  1. Love that tree! My family made me take the barge tour many many times…and the story of the sniper is the only thing I ever remember.

  2. Fun article, but you seem to have an error in one of the photo captions. Circumference = 25 feet per your specs. (Diameter of canopy = 98 feet)

    • You got me there, Fiddlechick. Stat corrected. The more important question: does this tape measure make the tree’s trunk look fat? — MM

  3. C. F. Eckhardt in his essay, “Ben Milam – Forgotten Hero of the Texas Revolution,” describes how this Kentucky native helped plan and led the assault on San Antonio de Bejár.

    Eckhardt relates that Milam drew a line in the dirt with a stick and said “Who’ll follow old Ben Milam into Bejár?” Milam was old, he walked with a limp, and he carried a walking stick. In fact, Eckhardt suggests that Milam’s stick in the dirt line was the probable inspiration of the Alamo story of Travis’ sword in the dust!

    About 20 years ago, the UTSA anthropology/archaeology department verified Milam’s legs had arthritis and that his head was shattered by a large projectile. But Eckhardt says it wasn’t from a Mexican sniper. “What they had were special rifle battalions of highly-trained, well-treated troops who were armed with British-made .64 caliber Baker rifles,” he writes.

    And he doesn’t believe Milam stopped for a drink when he was shot in the back yard of the Veramendi house . “He hadda pee!”

    Check out C.F. Eckhardt’s excellent history at http://www.texasescapes.com/CFEckhardt/Ben-Milam.htm .

  4. Thank for publishing the story of this historic tree and the amazing story! You can see the story of the tree and 36 others in my book, “Living Witness: Historic Trees of Texas” (2012, Texas A&M University Press) To see more photos of the venerable tree, go to Livingwitness.net or download the free Living Witness iPhone app

  5. When dating age of The Ben Milam Cypress by DBH, consideration of two separate leaders emanating either from Coppice shoots (Which makes tree even older if top half regrown from existing root system), or that the smaller leader is an old sucker sprout from main trunk. Even that this could be two different trees including into one. A tree with a single main trunk and same DBH as this double leader one would be much older. Look up Dendrology methods. Thanks’ for documenting story w/photos.

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