North Carolina has lots of superlatives, the tallest mountain east of the Rockies and the largest sand dunes of the East Coast just to name a few. Many, however, are not aware of this particular North Carolina natural history record. Our state is home to the oldest trees in eastern North America - the bald cypress on the Black River.
The 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, which is 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. Although 1,652 years is impressive enough, Stahle suspects other trees in the area are older but core rot prevents from determining exact age. The Conservancy has protected and manages the Three Sisters swamp where these ancient giants grow.
The Black River, which flows through Sampson, Pender and Bladen counties before emptying in the Cape Fear, lies in a part of North Carolina that has seen substantial changes in the past decades. Agricultural operations - row crops, hog and poultry farms - compromise most of the watershed. Timber harvesting of cypress and other floodplain trees is a threat to these ancient stands.
In the summer of 2016, the Chapter purchased another 410 acres on the Black known as Sparkleberry Landing. This tract, named for the sparkleberries (Vaccinium arboreum) that grow there, has old growth swamp forest with ancient cypress and nice uplands that can be restored to longleaf pine.
To date, the Conservancy has protected more than 14,000 acres in the watershed and continues to look for opportunities in the area.