January 19th, 2012 by

This week, Florida said goodbye to an old friend. A very, very old friend, in fact. The cypress tree — dubbed “The Senator” after Florida State Senator M. O. Overstreet, who donated the property around it to Seminole County in 1927 — was estimated to be around 3,500 years old, making it one of the oldest known trees in the country.

The Senator before the fire. (Credit: the Florida Big Tree Program)

At about 118 feet tall and more than 35 feet around, The Senator fell short of being a national champion tree, but easily claimed the state crown in Florida — no small feat in a state so full of champion trees; it currently boasts 106 of them.

The Senator spent thousands of years quietly watching the land around it warp and change and fill with people. It saw civilizations spring up, wars lost and won, and cities sprout out of the ground. But on Monday, the ancient tree succumbed to an intense fire that burned it from the inside out. Firefighters did their best, but it took 800 feet of hose just to reach the tree, which was nestled deep inside a park. Though arson was suspected at first, authorities could find no evidence to support it and now think the blaze may have started when the tree was struck by lightning earlier in the week.

The massive cypress tree grew in the aptly named Big Tree Park and was a chief attraction in Florida’s Seminole County for the better part of a century. In 1929, President Coolidge designated the remarkable tree a national historic landmark. All this before its astonishing age was even known. In 1946, the American Forestry Association (that was us, at the time!) took a core sample and estimated the tree’s age at 3,500 years old. In 2005, when the park was rededicated, officials found a companion tree: a nearby bald cypress, now named Lady Liberty, estimated to be 2,000 years old. Thankfully, this tree was saved from the fire and has inherited The Senator’s title of the oldest tree in the park.

For many Florida natives, losing The Senator is like losing an old friend. I have to admit that for me, it is difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that something that stood for 3,500 years could simply vanish in the course of a day. Losses like this give us all the more reason to recognize and protect our most remarkable trees; they may seem ageless, but even they won’t be around forever.