Noted American plantsmen Michael Dirr of the University of Georgia shares that the bald cypress is regarded by many Europeans as being perhaps the finest U.S. native tree. Those Europeans are onto something, as many Americans love this deciduous tree alongside waterways or lined large boulevards and parks on upland hills. The wood is resistant to rot and makes durable outdoor furniture.
The bald cypress, also called the common baldcypress or swamp cypress, is a non-flowering, cone-bearing tree, classified as a gymosperm. Its scientific name is Taxodium distichum, making it a member of the bald cypress family, Taxodiaceae. Some taxonomists include the pond cypress as a natural variety of the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum var. nutans), while others regard the pond cypress as a distinctive, separate species (Taxodium ascendens).
Bald cypress trees naturally grow in the extreme southeastern United States, primarily in the coastal plain from Delaware to central Florida and along the Gulf Coast into the lower Mississippi River basin. It occurs in east Texas, Missouri and southernmost Illinois and Indiana. This water-loving tree grows in moist woodland areas and along the edges of swamps. It does not necessarily need lots of rainfall, but occasionally flooding or soggy soils across the year favors its growth and health.
Old specimens can tower over 100 feet in height, but usually plants grown in gardens and parks attain a lovely triangular shape with tiered branches at maturity of 50 to 70 feet high, 20 to 30 feet wide. The many, twiggy branches bear green feathery needles in spring and summer. The needles are arranged in two ranks on the twigs. In autumn these needles turn rusty orange-brown before dropping. Severe drought can also cause these needles to turn color prematurely and drop.
In the uppermost branches of the canopy, drooping male cones shed pollen in very late winter while the green, round female cones appear on separate branches. The female cones are pollinated by the wind and ripen to brown by autumn and persist across winter. The bark is reddish brown and shreds. In boggy or submerged soils, knee-like protrusions of roots are seen around the base of the trunk, acting as a means for the submerged roots to have some access to air.
Grow bald cypress in a full sun to partial shade exposure, ranging from four to over 10 hours of direct sunlight daily. Soil should be fertile, moist and acidic in pH (less than 7.0). This tree is tolerant of heat, humidity and winter cold as well as drier upland soils that are far from the water's edge. In drier soils the "knees" that pop up from the soil around the trunk base rarely form. This tree is rated for USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 10.
In alkaline soils (pH above 7.8), chlorosis appears on the needles, which is a nutritional deficiency resulting in yellowed leaves. Occasionally trees may be bothered by bark beetle insects, and less rarely by diseases of wood rot and leaf spot.
Trees raised from seed that are grown in moist container potting soils do not acclimate well when planted into a garden site that is submerged. Such a wetland landscape is best planted with young trees that have grown continuously in a mucky soil-filled container.