Beloved cypress given honor
Wednesday August 20, 2003
By Lynne Jensen
The big baldcypress tree in front of Leona Epstein's Uptown home was marked with a plaque Tuesday because of its historic importance. But it was the mighty presence of the tree that beckoned Epstein in 1959.
So taken with the towering cypress was Epstein that she and her husband, Arthur, bought the two-story house it shades at 1664 Robert St. and raised four children there.
"I feel I'm in a treehouse," Epstein said, stepping from her second-floor bedroom onto a porch little more than an arm's length away from the tree, which measures about 13 feet in circumference. Staring up at the tree from the front lawn were family, neighbors and friends, who gathered for the ceremony marking the cypress as a Louisiana Purchase "Founder's Tree."
The old tree was alive when renowned pirate Jean Lafitte "was burying his loot," said Harvey Stern, who presented the Epsteins with their Founder's Tree plaque.
Stern, coordinator of the Louisiana Purchase Cypress Legacy campaign, hopes to identify every baldcypress in Louisiana that is at least 200 years old -- alive at the time of the Louisiana Purchase -- and to ensure that the trees "will grow and prosper without man-made interference" by placing them on a registry of "Louisiana Purchase Trees."
Organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and Jean Lafitte National Park are endorsing the volunteer campaign in recognition of this year's bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the designation of the baldcypress as the state tree. The Legislature declared August "Louisiana Purchase Cypress Legacy Month."
The legacy campaign is a treasure hunt for the old trees, which are "as valuable as gold or silver," Stern said.
A Founder's Tree plaque also was presented Tuesday to Johnny and Mamie Sargent Majoria, who have documented more than a dozen baldcypress trees measuring more than 13 feet in circumference on their 800-acre home site in Harrisonburg.
"The biggest is 23 feet" around, Johnny Majoria said.
The cypress-filled property has been in his wife's family since 1812, Majoria said. The trees survived the 20th century because his father-in-law, Roy Sargent, who died four years ago at 84, turned a deaf ear to money-waving lumber companies, he said.
"We all have a moral obligation to keep them," Majoria said of the baldcypress trees.
A third plaque was presented to Virginia Rettig, director of the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Francisville, home of a baldcypress that is 54 feet in circumference and believed to be between 800 to 1,500 years old.
The Cat Island tree is the largest virgin baldcypress on the planet and the largest tree of any species east of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, dwarfed in North America only by the giant redwoods and sequoias on the Sierra's western slope.
The Cat Island tree is the sixth largest tree in the United States and the centerpiece of the 6,500-acre wildlife refuge, Rettig said. "It's a national treasure right here in Louisiana," she said.
Epstein said the cypress that stands like a giant sentry in front of her home is "a valuable part of our family."
When she bought her house more than 40 years ago, a contractor said the huge tree was too close to the house and should be cut down, Epstein said. "I said, 'No, the house is too close to the tree,' " she said. "The house was incidental.". . . . . . .
The campaign Web site is www.LouisianaPurchaseCypressLegacy.org
Lynne Jensen can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3310.