To woodworkers, a memorable aspect of traveling through the Southeast is seeing the array of curios that can be made from odd-shaped pieces of baldcypress. What major highway intersection, say in rural Florida, doesn't have its entrepreneurial roadside stand displaying clocks, carvings, coffee tables, and other items crafted from the knobby appendages known as "knees?"
Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), an ancient conifer species, thrives in bayous and backwaters where other trees would be swamped. But in this fragile growing base, oddly enough, baldcypress seldom yields to even hurricane winds. That's because its shallow root system spreads out snakelike from the trunk, and every so often sends an elongated cone up above water level. These so-called knees may grow to 6' tall, depending on the high-water mark of the area. They serve as hefy anchors to hold the tree erect. And the size of old-growth trees can be remarkable— heights of 150' with 12' diameters aren't unheard of.
With trees so huge, it's no wonder that stands of baldcypress containing 100,000 board feet per acre have been recorded. Few of those great trees remain today, however. The lumber from them was used long ago for ships, water tanks, flooring, railroad ties, barns, and fences. Yet, their knees linger on; the largest occasionally peeled into the veneer that's called "faux satine."
Illustration: Jim Stevenson