“You know the story of the Geronimo tree, right?”

Me, neither. Most of us know the gargantuan Bald Cypress tree that stands south of the Commerce Street bridge near St. Mary’s on the San Antonio River as the Ben Milam Cypress. Anyone who’s taken a river boat cruise has heard a variation on the tale from their guide: Ben Milam, an Alamo fighter, took a Mexican sniper’s bullet in the head as the sniper laid wait in this tree.

Ben Milam Bald Cypress
The Ben Milam Bald Cypress stands behind the Drury Inn near the Commerce Street Bridge on the San Antonio River. Credit: San Antonio Report File Photo

Yet locals like City worker Andrew Garcia, quoted above, and even Juan Guerra, senior horticulturist for the City of San Antonio’s downtown operations, call the big, old Bald Cypress “Geronimo.”

“I don’t know why we call it that, but we do,” Guerra said.

Geronimo, an Apache warrior with a reputation for cruelty and creativity, seemed to have nine lives. He eluded capture for decades in the pioneer days, until 1886 when he was finally captured and sent to Ft. Sill, in Lawton, Oklahoma. He lived there until his death at age 90, in 1909.

Ben Milam Bald Cypress
The Ben Milam Bald Cypress: according to legend, once the roosting spot for a Mexican sniper. Credit: San Antonio Report File Photo

Ben Milam, on the other hand, died on Dec. 7, 1835. Soon after rallying 300 volunteers with his famous plea: “Who will go with old Ben Milam into Bexar?” Milam was shot dead in the head by a Mexican sniper. Legend has Milam either taking a drink of water from the river or relieving himself on the Bald Cypress. Only the Ben Milam Cypress knows for sure, having witnessed, even facilitated, the historic event.

Big Bald Cypress
City Forester Michael Nentwich (left) and Senior Horticulturist Juan Guerra  measure the Ben Milam Cypress’ 25-foot circumference, which suggests it is far older than 200 years. Credit: San Antonio Report File Photo

Bald Cypress typically thrive along waterways and can live to be thousands of years old. This fine specimen must be at least 200 years old and sports twin trunks – the result, Guerra speculates of flood damage. “We think it might have been one tree in the past with a single trunk,” he said. “Maybe it broke from a flood, then grew back as two sprouted trees that eventually grew together.”

When their roots are submerged in water, Bald Cypress shoot up knobby, above-ground “knees,” a signature of the species. Knees are a reaction to the root function of taking in oxygen and giving off carbon dioxide. They can’t do that if they’re under water, thus they push up “knees” above ground, accomplishing the gas exchange with the adaptation.

Bald Cypress leaves and seeds
Longevity, feathery leaves and conelike seeds make the Bald Cypress a desirable native landscape choice. Credit: San Antonio Report File Photo

Bald Cypress are fantastic, native landscape trees and can climb 75-100 feet. They grow fast as youngsters, then slow down in maturity. Their fragrant seeds reflect a cone-like structure and drop in late summer, providing wildlife fodder for birds and small mammals. Their feathery leaves turn rust orange with the advent of all. Woodworkers value the wood of Bald Cypress for its strength and resistance to moisture, tapping its durability for use in docks, ships, salad bowls, and situations that require toughness in moist conditions.

The patio of the Mexican Manhattan Restaurant offers an excellent vantage point for appreciating the Ben Milam Bald Cypress.

The Ben Milam Bald Cypress

Species: Taxodium distichum

Height: 90 feet

Canopy: about 98 feet

Diameter at breast height: 94 inches

Circumference: 25 feet

Age: 200+ The tree was large enough for a sniper to climb and shoot from it in 1835.

Location: Behind the Drury Inn, near the Commerce St. bridge near main plaza between Soledad and St. Mary’s.

Also known as: “The Geronimo Tree,” Swamp Cypress, Southern Cypress, Little Leaf Linden

NOTES: Diameter at breast height, or DBH, is a standard of measuring tree diameter at four-and-a-half feet off the ground. 

Regarding the age of trees, arborists and foresters are reluctant to cite them. The only accurate way to determine a tree’s age is with an increment boring test, whereby a hollow drill bit is bored into the tree trunk. Very traumatic for the tree. Since soil and water availability determine tree growth, some trees grow huge in several decades while others live a century and can be much smaller. The tree’s temperament is also a factor.

In short, when it comes to determining tree ages, size doesn’t matter. We will cite educated guesses by certified arborists for the ages of featured trees, unless scientific or historical data are available.

Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...