Illustration by Natalie Orga
A tale of lost love grows with Lewes’ landmark bride and groom cypress trees, which are estimated to date back to the early 1800s.
As one of the oldest Colonial settlements in Delaware, Lewes has plenty of historic artifacts dating back to the 1700s and 1800s, but not too many of those are actually alive.
Walk along Kings Highway downtown, though, and you’ll see some of its grandest artifacts towering over the landscape, still growing and thriving. They’re two massive baldcypress trees, examples of an ancient species of conifer that resemble evergreens but shed their leaves.
These two trees have been growing here since the days when residents got around in horse-drawn carriages. They were planted, according to local tradition, sometime around 1812.
Since then, tourists have replaced the old sea captains who used to spin their yarns in local taverns.
One of the tales from those days, still told, is about the origins of the two cypresses.
The story goes that a young Lewes woman named Margaret Coleman got engaged to a young clergyman. Following old tradition, she planted a pair of “bride and groom” trees to commemorate their wedding.
But the young woman had counted her chickens before they were hatched—or rather planted her trees before the pair was hitched. For reasons unknown, she and the clergyman never married. Margaret found someone else, and the trees still stand, a relic of lost love.
A 1935 edition of the Journal-Every Evening, a precursor to the News Journal, told essentially this story, attributed to an old local sea captain named John R. Morris who remembered Margaret. In Morris’ version, Margaret never married.
At any rate, the trees were already towering in 1935. The paper said they had been planted “more than 120 years ago,” which would put them before 1815. The captain’s memory seems to have been a little faulty, though, and the story might have picked up some romantic embellishments over time.
A house next door, originally on the same property, was once owned by Thomas Coleman, a Lewes silversmith, and is one of the oldest homes in the city, according to Denise Clemons of the Lewes Historical Society.
The Coleman House was built around 1815, according to the National Register of Historic Places. But both the register and a local genealogical record state that Thomas Coleman never had a daughter Margaret. His one child was named Ellen Prettyman Coleman, listed as born in 1819, about seven years after she supposedly planted the trees. There was a Margaret Coleman, but she was Thomas’ second wife, with whom he had no children.
“The story goes that a young Lewes woman named Margaret Coleman got engaged to a young clergyman. Following old tradition, she planted a pair of ‘bride and groom’ trees to commemorate their wedding. …For reasons unknown, she and the clergyman never married. Margaret found someone else, and the trees still stand, a relic of lost love.”
Still, it seems quite possible that the trees date back to around the time Coleman built the house in 1815. Kyle Hoyd, assistant forestry administrator with the Delaware Forestry Service, says the age estimate is probably not far off, but it’s hard to tell without cutting down the trees and counting the rings, or taking a core sample that leaves a hole all the way to the center of the tree. Chopping down a local landmark to test the age is not an option, and nobody has done a core sample either, Hoyd says, which comes with concerns about potential harm to the tree.
Regardless of the exact planting date, the trees have been Lewes icons for generations, as the story that’s grown with them indicates.
The Lewes trees are older than most you would expect to see in natural areas in Delaware, says Andrew Martin, a field ecologist for Delaware Wildlands, which owns and is restoring around 12,000 acres of the Great Cypress Swamp between Selbyville and Gumboro. Baldcypress trees, whose natural range peters out in southern Delaware, were logged because their wood was rot- and insect-resistant. A huge fire in the swamp in the 1700s didn’t help their numbers.
Although baldcypress can grow just fine on dry ground, they also need wetlands to reproduce and outcompete other trees, Martin explains. As land has been drained on the peninsula, they’ve lost much of their habitat.
Still, there are a few other cypresses of similar age, or older, around. Often, Hoyd notes, these are on public property, protected from logging. One giant, listed by the state as the biggest in Delaware, stands in Laurel, and another in Millsboro.
Another cypress tree in North Carolina is around 2,600 years old, so Lewes’ Bride and Groom trees could stand for generations more.
“They’re fine specimens for anywhere, but they’re one of those things that people know about Lewes,” Hoyd says.