What Is a Cypress Tree?


The Cupressaceae or cypress family has widespread representation on all of the world's continents, except for Antarctica, comprising about 30 genera and 130 species of cypress trees and shrubs. The name "cypress" is equally cosmopolitan, deriving from the French "cipres" which in turn comes from the Latin "cyparissus."


The cypress family is a conifer family of monoecious and dioecious trees and shrubs. The bark of the older trees is usually orange or reddish-brown in color, sometimes stringy and sometimes smooth. The leaves are often spiral or whorled. Most cypress are evergreens but there are some deciduous trees among them, notably in the Glyptostrobus, Metasequoia and Taxodium genera.


Cypress also defines Ipomoea quamoclit in the Convolvulaceae family that is commonly called cypress vine, while Kochia scoparia in the Amaranthaceae family is called summer cypress.

Honorary Name

Widdringtonia is a genus of coniferious trees in the cypress family. The Austrian botanist, Stephan Endlicher selected this name to honor the English writer, Samuel Edward Cook (1787 to 1856). Cook took the name Widdrington, his mother's maiden name, in 1840. While living in Spain for a time, Cook wrote a detailed scientific account of the coniferous forests there. The name Widdringtonia pays tribute to his work. The four species of Widdringtonia are all native to southern Africa and are commonly called African cypresses.

Single Species

Fokienia hodginsii or Fujian cypress constitutes the only living species of the Fokienia genus, and is native to Asia, from southeastern China to northern and west Central Vietnam, to northern Laos. This evergreen tree with grey-brown bark arrived in Europe in 1908. There is also a fossil species called Fokienia ravenscragensis.

Oldest Cypress

In 1993, horticulturists confirmed the age of a Patagonia cypress (Fitzroya cupressoides) grown in Chile, to be 3,622 years. That is second only to the Great Basin bristlecone pine. The Fitzroya genus name is after Robert Fitzroy (1805 to 1865), captain of the British ship, HMS Beagle, which sailed around the world with the naturalist, Charles Darwin aboard. The Patagonia cypress is indigenous to the Andes mountains of Chile and Argentina, and part of the Valdivian temperate rain forests. The other common names of this tall evergreen include alerce, and lahuan (Mapuche Native American name).

Struck By Lightning

Big Cypress Tree State Park in Greenfield, Tennessee, was home to a national champion bald cypress that lived to be 1,350 years old. Lightning killed the tree in 1976. The tree's diameter was 13 feet, and its circumference was 40 feet.

Keywords: Cupressaceae family, Widdringtonia, Patagonia cypress

About this Author

Based in Northern California, Maureen Katemopoulos has been a freelance writer for more than 25 years. Her articles on travel, the arts, cuisine and history have appeared in publications such as "Stanislaus Magazine," "Orientations," "The Asia Magazine" and "The Peninsula Group Magazine." She holds a Baccalaureate degree in journalism from Stanford University.