The culprit who accidentally lit this 3,500-year-old tree on fire stated "I can't believe I burned down a tree older than Jesus."
Visiting one of the oldest living organisms in the world was at one point quite easy. Thought to be the eighth-oldest tree in the world, the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) affectionately known as The Senator once stood in a small park in Longwood, Florida.
Its estimated age of 3,500 years made The Senator only slightly younger than the carefully guarded Great Basin Bristlecone Pine of California known as Methuselah. The Senator was alive not only during the time of Jesus, but for 1,500 years before that when the Greeks destroyed Troy, the Olmecs were powerful in Mexico, Solomon succeeded King David, and Stonehenge was being constructed. Unlike the secret location of the ancient pine, the cypress was supremely—perhaps too—accessible.
The “Senator” was the largest tree east of the Mississippi and stood at 118 feet tall with a circumference of 35 feet. (A hurricane in 1925 damaged the top of the tree, shortening it from its original height of 165 feet.) Its tremendous size made it useful to both Native Americans and early settlers as a marker when traveling through the area. Tourists have frequented the area to view the tree since the 1800s and the land on which it resides was donated to Seminole County by the late Senator M.O. Overstreet to ensure the preservation of the tree (hence the name).
Unfortunately, on February 29, 2012, Seminole County police arrested a woman who confessed to causing a fire that destroyed the Senator. Sarah Barnes and a friend were smoking inside the tree, and using an open flame as a guide. After the fire broke out, Barnes took photos and video with her cell phone and later showed them to several people, which led someone to tip off investigators. Apparently, she left the fire burning, and the tree was engulfed days later, burning from the inside out. Though the park is still open, the tree is no longer standing.
In 2014, county workers planted a 50-foot-tall clone in Big Tree Park (named “The Phoenix,” via a county-wide elementary school contest) and a 60-foot clone of the old tree in Reiter Park (also located in Longwood, Florida). There were 10 trees cloned from “The Senator” in the 1990s, and these two were from the seven that survived and flourished. Of course, it will take thousands of years for these trees to grow to the size of their “parent.” The Senator also shared space with a tree known as Lady Liberty. This companion bald cypress is a comparatively youthful 2,000 years old and still stands a proud 89 feet in Big Tree Park.
The Senator will live on in various artworks created from the charred wood and ashes of this once mighty tree. County officials realized future generations of Seminole residents would not be able to see the ancient tree that lived at the time of Florida’s Timucua tribe. Several tons of the tree’s remnants were distributed to artisans to create artworks, with the agreement that it would be donated to the county. 18 organizations also received remnants for display, including the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.
Know Before You Go
This park is located on General Hutchinson Parkway between U.S. 17-92 and State Road 427, north of Longwood, FL.
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