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what is the Tree of the Sad Night?

The Miller Library has Augustine Henry’s own copy of the seven-volume The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (co-written with Henry John Elwes, 1909-1913) , and we discovered his handwritten note referring to the tree of the Noche Triste (Sad Night) in Mexico, citing an 1896 article describing the Tree of the Sad Night as Cupressus mexicana. We wanted to know what a note about Cupressus was doing in among the Taxodium pages (instead of in volume 5, with Cupressus species, including C. mexicana).

The placement of that note turns out to be meaningful, because the classification of C. mexicana has fluctuated over the years and in 1906, Henry himself was responsible for naming Taxodium distichum var. mucronatum, which was at one time called Cuprespinnata mexicana, with common names such as Mexican cypress or Montezuma cypress. The scientific name is still contested: “Most authorities continue to call the ahuehuete Taxodium mucronatum, although there is also widespread support for the name T. distichum var. mexicanum due to molecular studies showing an extremely close similarity between all taxa of Taxodium.” The tree’s name in Nahuatl is ahuehuete, meaning old man of the water, and there are some specimens of impressive vintage in Mexico. The reference to water reflects the ability of this tree to thrive in swampy conditions.

The night in the tree’s name is June 30, 1520, when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés failed to overcome the Mexica warriors, and was said to have sat down and wept by this tree in Popotla. It is worth noting that conflicts are often complex: Cortés had allies among the indigenous Tlaxala, who were captured or killed along with the Spaniards. The tree was renamed Árbol de la Noche Victoriosa in 2021, marking the 500th anniversary of victory over the Spanish. The preserved remnants of the tree may or may not belong to the tree of legend, but it continues to be an important symbol of Mexican identity.

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