Stories in Texas

Rooted in Restoration: An Opportunity to Build Back Montezuma Cypress

A love letter to the Montezuma cypress, the iconic national tree of Mexico, and its return to Texas

Branches from a massive Montezuma cypress tree extend toward the sky, nearly obscuring an ornate building next to the tree.
SACRED TREE El Árbol del Tule, a Montezuma cypress tree located on hallowed church grounds in Oaxaca, Mexico, is thought to be more than 1,400 years old. © fitopardo

Every year, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) Professor Alejandro Fierro brings his students to The Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve to work on research projects at the native plant nursery. Southmost Preserve is located on the U.S.-Mexico border and protects more than 1,000 acres of land along the Rio Grande. Its native plant nursery produces tens of thousands of seedlings for area restoration efforts. Several student projects have focused on thornforest restoration, but at the suggestion of Professor Fierro, one study set out to restore Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum), a tree with great ecological and historical significance in the area.

What Makes the Montezuma Cypress Tree So Iconic?

The Montezuma cypress is a majestic conifer tree with massive trunks, spiral leaves and weeping branches. These spectacular trees grow near water; they provide habitat for wildlife, as well as shade, and they improve water quality. The Montezuma cypress has ancient beginnings that predate its namesake “Montezuma”—the ruler of the Aztec Empire (1502–1520) who had the trees planted in abundance in today’s Mexico City.

There are a few famous Montezuma cypress trees. El Arbol del Noche Triste in Mexico City is known as the tree that Conquistador Hernán Cortés cried under after losing a battle against the Aztecs in 1520. El Arbol del Tule in Oaxaca holds the record for the biggest diameter of 46 feet and is believed to be between 1,000 and 3,000 years old. School classes visit the tree and form a line to wrap their arms around it. Professor Fierro remembers being one of those schoolchildren himself. 

A black and white historical image of El Arbol de La Noche Triste from the late 1800s, with long branches and twisted trunks.
El Arbol de La Noche Triste: It is said that the Conquistador Cortés cried under this Montezuma Cypress tree in Mexico City after suffering severe losses in a battle against the Aztecs in 1520. © SMU Libraries Digital Collections, pictured 1885 - 1889
The twisted remains of the El Arbol de La Noche Triste trunks, following a fire.
Present Day: Today, only the trunk remains of El Arbol de La Noche Triste after a fire in the 1980s burned most of the tree. © Ron Mader
El Arbol de La Noche Triste: It is said that the Conquistador Cortés cried under this Montezuma Cypress tree in Mexico City after suffering severe losses in a battle against the Aztecs in 1520. © SMU Libraries Digital Collections, pictured 1885 - 1889
Present Day: Today, only the trunk remains of El Arbol de La Noche Triste after a fire in the 1980s burned most of the tree. © Ron Mader

“It’s a tree that I’ve known all my life,” said Professor Fierro, whose family hacienda in Mexico is named after the tree as well. “They are part of our forever environment. It’s something that’s a part of us, so when we were working with plants and seeds at the preserve, I thought, let’s look at this—why not? Perhaps it will help in the propagation, re-establishment and recovery of the populations this side of the Rio Grande.”

A Historian Falls in Love

During the turn of the century, Montezuma cypress trees lined the banks of the Rio Grande Valley; accounts from Spanish and Mexican colonists in the area called the stands of cypress “boundless.” But that abundance began to diminish in 1846 with the start of the Mexican-American War. Historians approximate that 400 mature trees were clear-cut to build American General Zachary Taylor a temporary causeway.

Deforestation continued thereafter, escalating during the American Civil War in 1863 when Montezuma cypress were used to build a port and fuel the boilers of steamboats. And not long after that, the trees were used to construct three railroads. By 1919, where forests once thrived, only a few old-growth cypress trees remained at one site near the Mexico-U.S. border, on the Brownsville property of French immigrant Celestine Jagou, acquired in 1872.

In 2007, local Brownsville historian Eugene Fernandez heard about the old-growth trees. Mr. Fernandez paid a remaining Jagou heir a visit when she was in her late 90s. She told him to go down the carriage path and see the trees for himself.

 A massive Montezume cypress trunk extends upwards with visitors staring at its sheer size and beauty.
A site to behold The size and beauty of the Montezuma cypress is unlike any other. It’s hard to imagine all that these trees have bore witness to over thousands of years. © Stefano Barzellotti

“As I came into a clearing, I saw something in my peripheral vision to my left, and I glanced over at it and fell on the ground; I fainted,” said Eugene Fernandez, director of the South Texas Center for Historical and Genealogical Research. “If there had been a person nearby, they would have had to pour a bucket of water on me. I saw these most incredible cypress trees. I just was in awe.”

That was 15 years ago, a day that sparked Mr. Fernandez’s advocacy and love for Montezuma cypress. Since then, he helped ensure the old-growth site was protected by working to advance a deal that resulted in Ms. Jagou selling the cypress tract to the City of Brownsville. Mr. Fernandez also petitioned for the Montezuma cypress to be the official tree of the City of Brownsville, which was adopted in 2014.

In 2019, Mr. Fernandez advocated for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to purchase 12 mature trees when TxDOT workers cut down two that had been planted in the 1920s. He planted the six-foot trees in visible spots around the Brownsville resaca banks. Currently, among other ongoing efforts, he is advocating for the name of the old-growth site to be called “Montezuma Cypress Preserve” (often currently referred to as La Posada del Rey).

A tall, green, twisted Montezuma Cypress tree.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT Mr. Fernandez’s advocacy and love for the Montezuma cypress has helped ensure that those few trees that remain will endure long into the future. © Kristin McMahon

The Last Old-Growth Stand

This stand of 69 trees in Brownsville, Texas is the only significant natural stand of old-growth Montezuma cypress remaining in the United States. Known as Mexico's national tree, the Montezuma cypress is closely related to the bald cypress of the southeastern United States.

Other names for the Montezuma cypress include:

  • Ahuehuete (Nahuatl for “old man on the water”)
  • Sabino
Expand to see more Collapse to see less

Restoration Efforts at TNC’s Southmost Preserve

Sixty-nine trees remain at the old-growth site, the only natural stand remaining in the United States, according to Professor Fierro’s 2020 study. Among these magnificent trees, Professor Fierro, his students and TNC staff collected seeds to test their germination, bringing them back to TNC’s Southmost Preserve nursery to grow.

We’ve supported efforts to germinate hundreds of Montezuma cypress seeds at our Southmost Preserve. This work is teaching us how to ensure these iconic, native trees are part of larger restoration efforts in the Rio Grande Valley.

Coastal Plains Project Director at The Nature Conservancy in Texas

The UTRGV research illustrates how Montezuma cypress seedlings can be effectively produced on a large scale, and with the old-growth seed source nearby, they can be produced efficiently at Southmost nursery. The next step? Connecting with the City of Brownsville to join forces and further efforts to restore the tree.

A wooden table holds a box of bushy, bright green Montezuma Cypress seedlings in tubes, ready to be planted.
Seeds of Hope The Montezuma cypress seedlings grown at TNC’s Southmost Preserve are helping restore a part of the Rio Grande Valley's heritage. © Professor Alejandro Fierro

Restauración de Montezuma cypress es importante porque son arboles nativos y hay muy pocos en El Valle [Montezuma cypress restoration is important because they are native trees and there are very few in The Valley].

Southmost Preserve Manager at The Nature Conservancy in Texas
Three young boys stand with their father on the edge of a river beside a young Montezuma cypress tree that has just been planted.
ECOLOGICAL LEGACY The restoration of these native trees is also helping community members better connect with the natural and cultural history of the region. © Eugene Fernandez
A group of four female volunteers plant a young Montezuma cypress tree along the edge of the Rio Grande while a young boy watches them at work.
PLANTING FOR THE FUTURE The Montezuma cypress is helping connect past and present with each seedling planted. © City of Edinburg
ECOLOGICAL LEGACY The restoration of these native trees is also helping community members better connect with the natural and cultural history of the region. © Eugene Fernandez
PLANTING FOR THE FUTURE The Montezuma cypress is helping connect past and present with each seedling planted. © City of Edinburg

The Montezuma cypress trees planted by Professor Fierro and his students have grown from seedlings to 3- to 4-foot tall saplings. The Nature Conservancy donated several sapling trees to The City of Edinburg and the South Texas Center for Historical and Genealogical Research. TNC Texas has been proud to partner with UTRGV to germinate and grow these important native trees that link together the natural and cultural history of the region.

Stay Updated on Our Work in Texas

Be among the first to know conservation news and stories from Texas.

Send me emails