The cypress tree or Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) is one of 30 genera in the Cupressaceae family, which also includes familiar evergreens such as thuja, juniper and cryptomeria. It is native to the Mediterranean, including Greece, Turkey, Crete, Lebanon and Syria. Tall, slender and evergreen, the trees can grow to 90 feet or more in height. They are also long-lived, and can survive up to 1,000 years. Cypress has been a popular ornamental in many countries and regions.
Cypress in the Ancient World
The use of cypress in gardens goes back almost to the dawn of gardening itself. In Mesopotamia and ancient Greece, the trees were planted in groves that surrounded temples. Cypress was one of the species planted to shade philosophers in Plato's time (338 BC).The tree arrived in Northern Italy courtesy of ancient Etruscans and became iconic in the region. The great Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, also planted cypress on the grounds of his villas near Rome and in the Tiber valley.
Symbolic and Mythological Significance
Like other evergreen species, including the yew, cypress has historically been associated with death and everlasting life. The species name, "sempervirens", means "everlasting". In Greece, Tuscany and elsewhere, the trees were traditionally planted in cemeteries and temple groves and the wood was used to make coffins and sarcophagi. The fragrance of the trees' essential oils were believed to ward off evil spirits.
Before the advent of modern medicine, distillations of Cuprressus sempervirens needles and cones were used for medicinal purposes. The fragrant essential oil is somewhat antiseptic and astringent and has long been used in deodorants, cologne (especially for men) and other deodorizing preparations. It is traditionally included in some massage oils and is said to create a feeling of warmth and comfort.
Italian cypress--another name for Cupressus sempervirens--was introduced into England at the end of the 14th century. By middle of the 17th century, the trees were widely used in English ornamental landscaping. English plant lover Peter Collinson sent Cupressus sempervirens specimens to his friend, John Custis, in colonial-era Williamsburg,Virginia, in 1735. The species was named and described by Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus in 1753.
Cypress Trees in Art
Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh painted cypress trees on more than one occasion, notably in "The Poet's Garden" (1888) and "Starry Night" (1889). The tree's upright form has also provided a "canvas" for topiary artists, who clip the branches into spirals and other shapes.