How to Identify a Cypress Tree
What Does a Cypress Tree Look Like?
Many trees in the family Cupressaceae are referred to as cypresses, though only those in the genus Cupressus are considered true cypresses. Cypresses are conifers, meaning that they produce seeds in cones.
Different species thrive in different climates. Some are native to North America and are used as Christmas trees, windbreaks or privacy screens.
What does a cypress tree look like? It depends on the species. The size and shape of the tree, as well as the features of the leaves and cones, can help to identify these trees. Most are evergreen, but some are deciduous. Knowing the USDA hardiness range of these trees can also aid in identification.
True Cypress Tree Identification
Let's look over some of the species of true cypresses in the genus Cupressus.
The Italian cypress tree (Cupressus sempervirens, zones 7 to 10) is a true cypress with a spreading habit. However, the most common Italian cypress trees in cultivation are cultivars with a tall, column-like form. The leaves of this tree are scale-like and dark grayish-green.
The Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana, zones 9 and 10) is native to Bhutan, where it is the national tree. It can be identified by its drooping branches. The blue-green leaves of the Kashmir cypress are about 1/16 of an inch long, which is shorter than most other needled trees in the cypress family.
Deciduous Cypress Tree Identification
Two types of deciduous trees in the Cupressaceae family are common in the southeastern U.S.: the bald cypress and the pond cypress. Let's review their characteristics.
The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum var. distichum, hardiness zones 4 to 9), which is found in swampy areas, gets its common name from the fact that it is deciduous, meaning it loses its leaves in winter and grows new leaves in spring.
This tree has heights between 50 and 70 feet. One way to identify bald cypress trees is by the "knees"—extensions of the roots that protrude from the ground—that it sends up through the water in wet areas.
The bald cypress has needle-like leaves. They are arranged in pairs along the tree's branchlets. The foliage is yellowish-green in the spring and reddish-orange in the fall.
The pond cypress (Taxodium distichum var. imbricarium, zones 4 to 9), is similar in appearance to the bald cypress and also deciduous, but is usually smaller, with heights between 30 and 70 feet. The native range of both trees overlap.
The "knees" of the pond cypress are generally shorter than those of the bald cypress. The needled leaves are arranged in a spiral shape, rather than in pairs, on branchlets.
Falsecypress Tree Identification
Trees in the genus Chamaecyparis are known as false cypress trees. These trees have much smaller cones than true cypress trees. Let's look at some common species.
The Sawara falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera, zones 4 to 8), also known as the Japanese cypress, is a pyramidal tree with heights between 50 and 70 feet in the wild and 20 and 30 feet in cultivation. This species has reddish, peeling bark.
The hinoki falsecypress, or just hinoki cypress, (Chamaecyparis obtusa, zones 4 to 8) is an evergreen tree with horizontal branches and dark green leaves that are scale-like. The undersides of leaves have white markings.
On mature trees, the reddish-brown bark peels back. Species trees can have spreads of up to 25 feet, which is why dwarf cultivars of this tree are more popular.
Cypress Cones Identification
Looking at the cones produced by trees in the cypress family can help to identify. Let's go over the features of some types of cypress tree cones.
- Italian cypress: Round cones with diameters of about 1.5 inches.
- Kashmir cypress: Small cones that are about 1/2-inch wide and take on a brownish copper color when mature. Each cone has 10 scales.
- Bald and pond cypresses: Cones are round with a wrinkled texture. They are purplish when young and brown when mature.
- Japanese falsecypress: Very small rounded cones that are initially green and turn brown.
- Hinoki falsecypress: Small cones with eight scales. Female cones are greenish-brown, while male cones are more orange in color.
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Taxodium distichum var. distichum
- Arbor Day Foundation: Baldcypress
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Taxodium distichum var. imbricarium
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Cypress Trees
- North Carolina State Extension: Chamaecyparis
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Chamaecyparis pisifera
- American Conifer Society: 10 Types of Cypress Trees that Everyone Should Know
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Cupressus sempervirens
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Cupressus cashmeriana
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Hinoki Falsecypress
- HGTV: Fabulous False Cypress
- The Morton Arboretum: Bald Cypress
- North Carolina State Extension: Chamaecyparis pisifera
Since beginning her career as a professional journalist in 2007, Nathalie Alonso has covered a myriad of topics, including arts, culture and travel, for newspapers and magazines in New York City. She holds a B.A. in American Studies from Columbia University and lives in Queens with her two cats.