Oak Bluffs resident Steve Auerbach and I share a love of plants and an affection for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary.  

As a dedicated volunteer, Steve is up for almost any request, so when he was asked to collect greens to make holiday wreaths for an event, he was all in, bringing in barrel after barrel of plant provisions. Hundreds of folks enjoyed his labors, crafting spectacular creations for home and hearth. It wasn’t until cleanup that I discovered the divergence of our botanical tastes. Steve likes exotics and I like local.  

A bunch of woody balls caught my eye. These curious cones belonged to a cypress tree, Hinoki cypress. A quick google of Hinoki cypress on Martha’s Vineyard yielded an article on, guess who, Steve and his gardens.  

Hinoki cypress, chamaecyparis obtusa, is native to Japan and is a popular ornamental in this country. There is only one cypress species in that genus found on the Island and its status as native is in doubt. Atlantic white cedar (chamaecyparis thyoides) is listed in the flora of Martha’s Vineyard as an historic native, though this fact has been heartily debated. You will find a few stands of white cedar on the Island but those were planted by Island conservation groups.    

Trees of the genus are revered. The Hinoki cypress is called the “King of Wood” in its homeland because of its strengths, longevity and wellness powers.  

The Horyuji Temple is Japan’s oldest wooden building and is built with cypress. The survival of this temple and its lumber’s lack of rot is attributed to the antibacterial and insect-repelling properties of cypress, which inhibits the growth of mold, fungus and other wood weakeners. The antibacterial quantities give it another use, as a garnish or substrate for food — specifically sushi — as it reduces oxidation and spoilage of the raw fare.  

Cypress is further revered for its essential oils that provide a scent known to be calming, improve focus, encourage better sleep and fortify concentration. Two chemical compounds in the trees, alpha-cadinol and alpha-pinene, are believed to be responsible for the plant’s health and wellness abilities. These essential tree oils provide the health benefits of forest bathing and even just a walk in the woods. Optimize its effects in a bathtub made of cypress with cypress oil sprinkled in the bath water.  

These attributes, along with its honored status, led to the Japanese idiom “standing on a cypress stage.” Only the best actors would be permitted to perform in a theater esteemed enough to have one.  

Ho Chi Minh took a philosophic view of the tree: “Remember,” he said, “that the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and the cypress to show their strength and their stability.” The same could be said about our friend Steve, a naturalized, if not native, stalwart sanctuary friend. .

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.