Some Trees Have Knees

If someone asked you to name something that lives for centuries, can grow over a hundred feet tall, and can have dozens of knees, what would you say it was? It might sound like some hideous creature, but most Floridians would know it’s actually the majestic bald cypress.

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a familiar sight near Florida’s many lakes, rivers, creeks, swamps, and springs. The trees generally take their time to grow, but that’s not really a problem for a cypress. They can live for hundreds of years. The Senator, a bald cypress that grew near Longwood in Seminole County until it was tragically burned in 2012, was estimated to be about 3,500 years old at the time of its death. (More on the Senator Tree here).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

One of the bald cypress’ most unusual characteristics is its “knees.” The knees are conical growths protruding up from the root system that radiates out from the tree’s trunk. They often have a knobby, knee-like appearance at the top. Their function is unknown, although studies suggest they may help the cypress absorb oxygen and remain stable in loose wet soils.

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress wood has long been admired for its beautiful grain, durability, and the ease with which it can be shaped and cut for building purposes. In the early 20th century, logging companies bought up vast tracts of land and cut much of the bald cypress growing in Florida swamps. The hearts of these trees, some of which were likely approaching a millenium in age, were sawed into lumber and marketed as “tidewater cypress.” The cypress industry is still in business, although the supply of available trees has dwindled considerably. Many cypress stands are now part of publicly owned protected wetlands.

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

As for the knees, they too have been a prized commodity. Their distinctive shape, natural broad base, and easy carvability make them perfect for creating figurines, birdhouses, and other small knick-knacks. Tom Gaskins of Palmdale, Florida made a career out of carving and shaping cypress knees for sale. He developed a Cypress Kneeland museum in Palmdale, featuring a collection of carved, peeled, and otherwise altered knees, plus a catwalk zig-zagging through an actual cypress swamp.

Along the path, visitors could see some of Gaskins’ experimental methods for shaping the knees as they grew. At various times, he tried flattening the knees with weights and carving designs into them so that the wooden flesh of the knees would grow around the cuts. Gaskins passed away in 1998, and the Cypress Kneeland Museum closed in 2000.

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins' creations (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins’ creations (1987).

Cypress trees and their unusual knees are just one of the features that make Florida a unique environment and all the more interesting. Which of Florida’s distinctive characteristics is your favorite? Share this post on social media or leave a comment below and get the conversation started!

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Tom Gaskins: Ol’ Barefoot

Tom Gaskins (1909 – 1998) spent most of his life trudging through the swamps of Fisheating Creek near Palmdale, Florida. He was a man of ideas and regarded as a salt-of-the-earth character. Gaskins owned the Cypress Knee Museum in Palmdale where he collected and sold cypress knees as decorations, furniture, and other useful items. His knowledge of cypress knees and swamp life was legendary. His friends referred to him as “Ol’ Barefoot,” as he never wore shoes except when paying his respects at a funeral.

Tom Gaskins at his Cypress Knee Museum, Palmdale, 1987

Tom Gaskins at his Cypress Knee Museum, Palmdale, 1987

The Cypress Knee Museum opened in the 1930s when Gaskins fashioned an extra-large cypress knee into a roadside sign to lure tourists to his collection. The museum remained open until 2000 (2 years after Gaskins’ death) when the property was burglarized and most of the collection stolen.

Cypress knee decorated by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

Cypress knee decorated by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

Gaskins was also an inventor. He held over a dozen patents, including the Tom Gaskin’s Turkey Call that is still manufactured and sold today.

Turkey call invented by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

Turkey call invented by Tom Gaskins, Palmdale, 1987

The State Archives of Florida is not the only organization that has taken an interest in Mr. Gaskins. Over the years he was featured in stories by the LA Times, Sun Sentinel, Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Science, Chicago Tribune, and was even a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Gaskins received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1988. His fascinating work and personality piqued the interest of those lucky enough to cross his path; just like travelers going down US 27 in South Florida who stopped by to see “Ol’ Barefoot.”

In 1987, Tom Gaskins was interviewed by the Florida Folklife Program. Below are two excerpts:

Excerpt 1: Tom Gaskins explains the origins of hollow cypress knees

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Excerpt 2: Tom Gaskins talks about the turkey call he invented

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More Information: Catalog Record