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.
“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.
“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).
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”)
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.
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.
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].
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.