A coniferous tree that sheds its needles is an oddity, but the baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) is such a species. The baldcypress is a large tree that grows in the southeastern United States, famous for its "knees," woody projections that extend up from the roots around the base of the tree. The baldcypress is able to survive in standing water and live for hundreds of years, producing wood so hard that it is perfect for such things as docks and bridges.
The baldcypress can grow to 100 and 150 feet tall, with the trunk diameter reaching some impressive widths. One documented baldcypress in Louisiana features a trunk 17 feet across, while another in Florida measures 11 feet in diameter. The baldcypress requires lots of space to grow and expand, making it a suitable tree only for very large landscapes.
The natural habitat of the baldcypress is typically swampy soil, floodplains and along lakes and rivers, with the tree in many cases actually growing in the water. Although the tree will grow in dry scenarios, it cannot in the wild, since other tree species will out-compete it for nutrients and sunlight. The seeds require dry ground to germinate, but the tree can withstand being in the water full time once it establishes itself. Acidic soil is the best medium for a baldcypress, and the species will thrive when planted in dry ground away from water, especially in full sun.
The botanical term that describes the knees of the baldcypress is pneumatophores, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science website. The function of these cone-shaped extensions of the tree's roots may be twofold. The knees probably help the tree garner oxygen when the roots are underwater, and they stabilize the tree in times of flooding.
The foliage of the baldcypress consists of soft flexible needles that develop in two rows on the twigs and branches. These needles are flat and as long as three-quarters of an inch. Their color is a light shade of green-yellow, with the needles turning a rust color and then red before falling off in the last weeks of fall or the start of winter. The needles allow the baldcypress to function as a shade species, and their falling off permits the sun to reach the ground in cooler months.
The "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees" says that the baldcypress produces a 1-inch long gray cone that contains as many as three seeds. The cones develop on the ends of the twigs by themselves or in pairs. The bark of a baldcypress is attractive, with the fibrous brownish or gray bark easily peeling off in lengthy strips. Baldcypress's wood is so durable that loggers cut down most of the largest trees long ago. Baldcypress provides food as well as shelter to a wide range of creatures, from the Canada goose to the white-tailed deer.