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Montezuma Cypress – a Gift from the Aztecs

February 10, 2020

Written by Dave G.

If asked what the largest living thing on the planet is, most people will answer, “Whales.” The more adventurous might talk about the enormous soil fungi that cover acres of woodland, as wispy threads spreading out between the grains of dirt. Some might suggest the iconic redwoods of the West Coast, although the mightiest of them fell a long time ago to the loggers’ axes. Few would suggest a trip to Mexico, to the small town of Santa Maria del Tule, in the southern state of Oaxaca. A swampy lake once covered this spot, and the world ‘tule’ means ‘bulrush’, after the spiky water plants that lined that lake.

Largest Living Thing on the Planet

Only a few thousand people live in Santa Maria del Tule, but if you enter the square in front of the town’s church you will find the largest living thing on the planet. It is so large that it takes 30 people joining hands to encircle it. It towers over the steeple of the church and it stands 130 feet tall. It is estimated to weigh 630 tons – in comparison to the paltry 190 tons of a blue whale. What is it? A tree. Believed to be over 2,000 years old, for a long time it was dismissed as a group of trees that had fused together, but DNA analysis has shown it is all one individual. This tree is without doubt the heaviest and bulkiest living thing alive today on our planet.

According to local beliefs, in the time of legends a passing god thrust his giant walking stick into the ground at this place, and it turned into a tree. From that tree all life was created, and if you look at the gnarled and twisted trunk you can see the forms of animals and faces, struggling to escape and become alive. In 1630 a passing priest reported that the tree was already hollow inside and had been damaged by lightning. But it recovered from that, just as it recovered from the lack of water that nearly killed it in the 1990s. Now carefully watered by the town for the tourist revenue it brings, the tree probably lived in the long-gone lake, because these trees are usually found growing in or beside water. The Aztecs considered the tree a symbol of government, and so they planted avenues of them in their cities, and some remnants of this can be seen outside Mexico City, at the Gardens of Montezuma (Parque Nacional El Contador), although only one-tenth of the original garden is visible, and the trees today are either dead stumps, or dying pieces. These gardens were built by Montezuma 500 years ago, shortly before Mexico fell to the Spanish conquistadores, and there is a story that the conqueror Cortes wept under a tree like this after he lost an important battle.

God of the Aztecs

The Aztecs had a much more practical use for this tree too. The many shallow lakes in the area around Mexico City were filled with fertile soil, and by planting these trees close together and filling them with soil, they created their famous chinampas, or floating gardens, and even built whole cities on the reclaimed land. We can learn lessons today from that intensive agriculture, in how to supply cities with food without resorting to industrial agriculture.

In fact, the tree at Tule, although the most well-known, is not the only large and ancient example of this tree, called ahuehuete (āhuēhuētl), meaning ‘old man of the water’, or Montezuma Cypress. There are other large trees scattered across Mexico, and the tree can often be seen growing along the banks of rivers or around lakes, which is its preferred habitat. Chapultepec Park, in Mexico City, has several ancient trees, and one there is a little taller than the tree in Santa Maria del Tule, but not as bulky. The ahuehuete has been the National Tree of Mexico since the early 19th century, and it is widely planted there, and in no danger of extinction.

The Montezuma Cypress

Known to botanists as Taxodium mucronatum, or more-correctly, Taxodium huegelii, the ahuehuete was first ‘discovered’ by Western science in the middle of the 19th century. It is a very close relative of the much more better-known bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, which grows in the southern USA, and is an icon of the Florida Everglades. Both have slender, flat needles arranged in row down both sides of the young stems, but ahuehuete keeps them all winter, while the bald cypress, as its name suggests, loses them. It also doesn’t develop the striking ‘knees’ of the bald cypress, which allow air to reach the roots below the water. It does grow into a much broader tree, and soon divides into multiple trunks, quickly developing the wide girth which is such a feature of the Tule tree.

If you live in zone 8, or warmer areas, you can grow this tree easily in your garden, with or without a pond or stream. It will grow easily, and relatively quickly, in a sunny spot in ordinary soil. It probably grows fine in zone 7 too, although there the leaves may turn red in winter, or even shed during a cold snap. It is unlikely to die, though, and will leaf out again, just like the bald cypress does, as soon as warmer weather returns. It develops an ‘ancient’ look quickly, and for that reason it is a popular plant among bonsai growers. In your garden this tree will certainly grow faster in wet soil, but quite well in ordinary soil too. Within 30 years you should have a tree over 50 feet tall, with a substantial trunk, and a spread of about 30 feet. The smaller branches are pendulous and create a beautiful weeping form that soon becomes an attractive lawn specimen – and a great conversation piece while you eat tacos in its shade.

Strangely, though, and despite its wide-spread planting in Mexico, it is not seen very often here. Nurseries don’t grow it much, although it can be grown easily from seed. Trees are offered from time to time, so when you find it, take the plunge and plant one or more. Our lives may be short, but we can plant for the future, and still enjoy the present, since your tree will soon become a worth-while specimen. Who knows, if you plant a Montezuma Cypress, the tree you plant today may still be here when future humans are celebrating the beginning of the fourth millennium.