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Information About Cypress Trees: Origins and Examples

A country road among cypresses in Tuscany, Italy.
© Marco Bottigelli/Moment/GettyImages

From the majestic Mediterranean cypress (‌Cupressus sempervirons‌) of postcard Italy to the 2,624-year-old bald cypress (‌Taxodium distichum‌) along the Black River in North Carolina, cypress trees are as diverse as they are numerous.

With up to 125 different species, including both Old World and New World varieties, cypress is grown around the world in warm temperate regions. All are evergreen conifers, with one exception: the bald cypress.

The name "cypress" itself comes from Greek and can mean "strong," "adaptable" and "muscular."

The History of Cypress Trees

To understand the history of cypress, go back to the days before the Earth split apart to an era known as Pangaea. The split gave birth to a new variety of cypress, including redwoods and sequoias, according to researchers at the National Academy of Sciences and reported by Live Science.

The northern section of the split, consisting of North America, Greenland, much of Europe and parts of Asia were designated Laurasia, while the southern part of the split, South America, Africa, India, Antarctica and Australia, became Gondwana. Members of the Cupressaceae family survived in Laurasia, while Callitroideae was found in Gondwana.

Fast forward through history to when cypress evolved in ancient Greece, Persia and Egypt. It is believed that the tree grew in this Mediterranean basin but was transported by the Etruscans to what is known today as Tuscany, Italy, where they graced paintings and became a symbol of the area.

A mighty Leyland cypress (x Hesperotropsis leylandii) growing next to a building
Pieter Delicaat, CC SA-4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Leyland Cypress

The Leyland cypress (‌x Hesperotropsis leylandii‌), which is ideal for large landscaping projects, creates a perfect natural fence when planted in a row. Growing well in USDA hardiness zones 6a to 10a, it can reach up to 50 feet in height. Not difficult to please, this cypress has little preference in soils and thrives in a moist climate.

A hybrid of seeds from cones of an Alaskan cedar (‌Callitropsis nootkatensis‌) and fertilized by a Monterey cypress (‌Cupressus macrocarpa‌), the Leyland cypress was found in Wales, U.K. Cuttings were brought to California in 1941.

Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica) trees growing at Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona.
Ken Lund, CC SA-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Arizona Cypress

With its blue-green foliage, Arizona cypress (‌Hesperocyparis arizonica‌) makes a natural Christmas tree. It's the only native-grown cypress in the Southwestern United States.

Originally from Mexico’s interior, Arizona cypress was discovered in the 1880s. It has thick, fibrous, coarsely shedding, gray-brown bark and dull gray-green needles with no resinous exudations.

Another related species of this tree, smooth Arizona cypress (‌Hesperocyparis glabra‌), has smooth bark that exfoliates in papery layers of purple to red and bright blue-green needles with resin glands, according to the Arbor Day Foundation. The Arizona cypress grows best in USDA hardiness zones 7 to 9.

A beautiful Monterey cypress (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa).
Harvey Barrison, CC SA-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Monterey Cypress

Standing alone on the windswept promontory of the Monterey peninsula, the Monterey cypress (‌Hesperocyparis macrocarpa‌) graces postcards and photo albums as the symbol of the Central Coast of California, the only location in which it grows.

A native of Monterey Bay, California, and a denizen of USDA hardiness zones 7 to 11, the Monterey cypress prefers salt air and has a high wind tolerance. The Lone Cypress, which is the name of the peninsula’s celebrity tree, is one of only two native stands.

A massive bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) growing at Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands in Boynton Beach, FL.
Katherine Wagner-Reiss, CC SA-4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bald Cypress

Perhaps the most fascinating and historically significant cypress tree is the bald cypress (‌Taxodium distichum‌). Native to the Southeastern United States, the age-old trees of the swampy Black River stand in North Carolina have been dated back to over 2,600 years ago.

They are classified as the oldest-known wetland tree species, the oldest living trees in eastern North America, and the fifth oldest known non-clonal tree species on Earth. They are hardy to USDA zone 4, according to IOP Science.

Unlike other evergreen cypress varieties, the bald cypress is deciduous and sheds its leaves in the fall. It has “knees,” knobs that form on the trunk of the tree above the water line, but their purpose is as yet not scientifically defined. The bald cypress is akin to a weather vane in that it predicts and records rainfall and has the strongest climate signal on earth, writes Smithsonian Magazine.

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