The University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus is home to more than 2,000 trees and large shrubs, but only one is a champion.
The campus’ sole Montezuma cypress joined the Louisiana Forestry Association’s Directory of Champions earlier this year. The association judges native and naturalized trees on their height, circumference and crown spread to determine which make the championship cut.
UL Lafayette’s Montezuma cypress stands 60 feet and has a circumference of 16 feet. Its branches spread 80 feet. By comparison, the largest Montezuma cypress in the United States is 70 feet tall and 28 feet in circumference, and spreads 90 feet. It’s in San Benito, in southern Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
“This is the largest Montezuma cypress in Louisiana,” said James Foret, an instructor in the School of Geosciences. “There may be a bigger one out there somewhere that we don’t know about, and we’ll get bumped off the list, but for now, it’s the largest.”
Whether the Montezuma’s reign is long or short, the University is planning accommodations fit for a king. That’s appropriate, since the tree shares its name with two rulers of the Aztecan Empire that flourished in Mexico between 1345 and 1521.
The tree, behind Billeaud Hall, was boxed in by a parking lot, a greenhouse and a maintenance building. The University has removed four parking spots and will build a deck with seating around the tree’s base. That will alleviate the pressure of concrete on its root system and enable the cypress to receive more water, oxygen and nutrients, improving its viability.
“We should see a burst of growth,” Foret said.
The University’s efforts to preserve the champion Montezuma cypress exemplify proactive measures that have earned UL Lafayette nine consecutive Tree Campus USA designations by the Arbor Day Foundation, said Gretchen Lacombe Vanicor, director of the University’s Office of Sustainability.
“This tree is pretty magnificent,” she said, looking up at the cypress’ drooping branches carpeted with green, feather-like leaves.
How UL Lafayette’s Montezuma cypress arrived on campus is something of a mystery, although University lore holds it was planted by Ira S. Nelson. He was a nationally recognized horticulturalist and professor from 1941 until his death in 1965.
Nelson traveled the world in search of rare plants. He collected those that he knew would respond well to South Louisiana’s semitropical climate and distributed them to local plant enthusiasts.
So, speculation that Nelson brought the Montezuma cypress back to Lafayette and planted it on campus seems logical, Foret said.
The tree’s size suggests it was planted in the early 1950s.
The species has gained popularity among local gardeners in recent years because it grows well in Acadiana and offers shade, said Frank Thibodeaux of Bob’s Tree Preservation. That company maintains campus trees, particularly the more than 250 live oaks.
He was standing among the parking spaces that will be removed and replaced by the planned deck. He studied the Montezuma cypress and marveled that the modern mindset that places a premium on parking has been reversed so that a champion tree can thrive.
“How about that?” Thibodeaux said. “The tree finally wins.”
This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Photos by University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Doug Dugas