About the Bald Cypress Tree

Overview

The state tree of Louisiana, the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) bears feathery light green needles that turn rusty orange in autumn before dropping away. The red-brown bark looks attractive in winter, as it strips and flakes away. Beautiful alone or planted in groups, cypress can be grown successfully in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 though 9.

Origins

The bald cypress tree grows naturally in the American Atlantic Coastal Plain from Delaware to southern Florida and westward along the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi River valley to eastern Texas. Its northern reach of the native range extends along the many inland streams to Oklahoma, Missouri, and southernmost Illinois and Indiana.

Description

A tall deciduous tree that produces cones, bald cypress belongs to the non-flowering group known botanically as gymnosperms. Growing 50 to 70 feet tall, sometimes with great age to 100 feet, it attains an upright, pyramidal shape or plump column-like stature. Its soft needles emerge in spring, a bright light green, and the male and female cones appear at the tips of the upper branches. Female cones, once pollinated by the wind, become reddish brown with a diameter of 1 to 2 inches and break apart to release seeds. In autumn or in drought stress, the foliage turns rusty orange and sheds away. The base of the trunk flares gently, and in wet soils or wetlands the roots sprout pointed, irregular, bony-looking "knees" around the trunk. These knees are ornamental and practical, and are believed to be a means for root cells to exchange gases without suffocation in submerged water or muck.

Cultural Requirements

Plant bald cypress trees from container-grown stock, as the long taproot struggles after transplanted from a hand-dug location. Locate it where it receives more than 4 to 6 hours of sunlight daily, full sun exposures promote dense foliage and best uniform branching structure. Adaptable to upland soils and landscapes, it grows well in any moist, well-draining soil that is not alkaline in pH (over 7.5). Once the root system establishes, it demonstrates good tolerance to drought, although receiving one inch of rain or irrigation water in drought helps retain foliage. Not needed pruning, it rarely requires fertilization as long as organic mulch layers the ground atop the root zone at a depth of three to four inches.

Wildlife Ecology

This tree's seeds provide food for wild turkeys, squirrels, evening grosbeaks and wood ducks. Large bald cypress trees supply unique habitats for some wildlife, including bald eagles and ospreys. Warblers and other songbirds forage in the Spanish moss or ferns growing on the branches, while other birds find nesting cavities in old decaying knees or hole-knots in branches or trunks. Catfish spawn in toppled hollow cypress logs in rivers and lakes. The slow-moving water known to exist around bald cypress trees act to capture flooding silt and remove pollutants from water, improving habitat quality.

Lumber

Bald cypress lumber has many uses as it naturally resists decay and rot. It is favored in building construction, fences, boat making, river pilings, furniture, interior trim, cabinetry, sills, rafters, siding, flooring and shingles, garden boxes, greenhouses, and many other uses.

Cultivars

"Shawnee Brave" cypress produces blue-green foliage on a tree that becomes a narrow pyramid. This selection boasts resistance to gall mite; expect it to grow 60 to 75 feet tall and only 20 feet wide. "Fastigiata" remains even narrower in width, while "Pendula" bears drooping branches. "Monarch of Illinois" becomes a massive tree, with heights of 90 feet and broad widths of 60 to 70 feet.

Keywords: Taxodium distichum, deciduous conifer, wetland trees, cypress knees

About this Author

James Burghardt has written for "The Public Garden," "Docent Educator," non-profit newsletters and for horticultural databases, becoming a full-time writer in 2008. He holds a Master of Science in public horticulture from the University of Delaware and studied horticulture and biology in Australia at Murdoch University and the University of Melbourne.