The oldest trees east of the Rocky Mountains can be found on this meandering blackwater stream in the southeastern part of the state: a stand of 2,624-year-old bald cypress. These ancient trees are easily recognized by their huge buttresses and flat tops that have been blown out by countless storms.
The river flows 66 miles through portions of Sampson, Pender, and Bladen counties before emptying into the Cape Fear River 14 miles above Wilmington. Water ash and cat-briar form a subcanopy of dense thickets along the banks of the river. Elsewhere along the river, slight variations in elevation allow for changes in the forest from black gum and tupelo gum in lower areas, to water hickory, American elm, and some oak species on the ridges. In a few places, dry upland bluffs along the river support longleaf pines and turkey oaks.
In recognition of the fact that the Black River is one of the cleanest, high-quality waterways in North Carolina, the state designated the river an Outstanding Resource Water in 1994. The river is home to rare fish species such as the Santee chub and broadtail madtom and numerous rare mussels like the Cape Fear spike. Many wildlife species inhabit the river’s floodplain, including bobcat, river otter, black bear, and neotropical songbirds like the prothonotary warbler and yellow-throated vireo.
The Black River is a treat to canoe throughout the seasons. You will relish drifting down the slow-moving tea-colored stream flanked by stately bald cypress draped with Spanish moss. Swamp roses bloom in the spring and spider lilies grace the water in the summer. Spring is a great time to see migratory songbirds nesting, while the foliage is outstanding in the fall.
The Bald Cypress
The ancient trees were discovered by accident in the 1980s. University of Arkansas professor David Stahle was exploring the relationship between tree growth rings and climate. His work led him to the Black River in southeast North Carolina.
Using an increment borer, essentially a hollow tube that takes a small cross section of a tree without harming it, he counted growth rings of Black River bald cypress. Many of the trees are more than 500 years old. The oldest identified tree, scientifically labeled BLK69 and locally known as Methuselah, dates back to 364 AD. Stahle suspects other trees in the area are older, though core rot prevents his team from determining their exact age.
The Nature Conservancy protected and manages the Three Sisters swamp where these ancient giants grow.
History of the Preserve
The Nature Conservancy is the sole conservation group actively working to protect the ancient bald cypress and their surrounding lands and waters. Since the 1990s, we’ve protected over 16,000 acres of land in the Black River basin.