Meet the Trees: Introducing the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

Bald Cypress

The Bald Cypress produces needles which turn color and shed in the fall, making the tree both coniferous AND deciduous!
The Bald Cypress produces needles which turn color and shed in the fall, making the tree both coniferous AND deciduous! | Source

Shape of the Cypress

Bald Cypress has a characteristically Christmas-tree type pyramid shape.
Bald Cypress has a characteristically Christmas-tree type pyramid shape. | Source

Native Range

The native range of the Bald Cypress extends through southern and eastern parts of the United States.  Some maps extend its range to include areas of the heartland and mid-atlantic states as well.  It can be found throughout the U.S. in landscaping.
The native range of the Bald Cypress extends through southern and eastern parts of the United States. Some maps extend its range to include areas of the heartland and mid-atlantic states as well. It can be found throughout the U.S. in landscaping. | Source

A Featured Tree

Bald Cypress is one of the trees featured at the Penn State Behrend Arboretum in Erie, PA.
Bald Cypress is one of the trees featured at the Penn State Behrend Arboretum in Erie, PA. | Source

Classification and Characteristics

The Bald Cypress is a both a deciduous AND coniferous tree! Also known as "swamp cypress", Bald Cypress grows needles that the tree then sheds in the fall.

Bald Cypress is native to North America and the state tree of Louisiana. It is a member of the major group Gymnosperms, plants that produce naked seeds on scales that typically form a cone, rather than bearing a fruit. Bald Cypress is a member of the family Taxodiaceae, a family of trees and, rarely, shrubs comprised of 16 species of evergreen and/or deciduous types distinguished by cone scales. Current research suggests all but one member of the Taxodiaceae family should be grouped into the family Cupressaceae, or cypress family, and so Cupressaceae is often listed as the Bald Cypress' family. Bald Cypress is further classified as genus "Taxodium", from the Greek meaning "yew-like", and species "distichum", in reference to its needles growing down two sides of the leaf. [3.], [9.].

The Bald Cypress can be found growing along the southeastern United States. It grows as far west as central Texas, up the Mississippi river valley through western Kentucky, and along the Atlantic coastline from Delaware to Florida. It is usually found on flat soil, usually in frequently flooded areas, and its growth seems to be inhibited by higher salt contents in water.

A slow growing and long living tree, obtaining an accurate age span of the Bald Cypress has been difficult. One examination estimated that many of the trees being examined were about 400 to 600 years old, with some reaching 1,200 years old. It is known that it takes about 200 years in forest-like conditions for the Bald Cypress to produce a significant portion of heartwood lumber. Growth seems to slow after 200 years. [8.].

Tree-Pattern Baldness

The Bald Cypress is so named for its bare looking branches, uncharacteristic of most gymnosperms.
The Bald Cypress is so named for its bare looking branches, uncharacteristic of most gymnosperms. | Source

The Bark of Bald Cypress

Thin, fibrous and intertwining, the bark of the Bald Cypress is good for wetlands but does little to protect the tree from wildfire.
Thin, fibrous and intertwining, the bark of the Bald Cypress is good for wetlands but does little to protect the tree from wildfire. | Source

Foliage of the Bald Cypress

Pictured here are the Bald Cypress' needle-lined leaves, male flowers hanging from catkins, and its globulous cones.
Pictured here are the Bald Cypress' needle-lined leaves, male flowers hanging from catkins, and its globulous cones. | Source

Identification

If you're exploring trees of the southeastern United States, or up along the Atlantic coast, here are a few key characteristics that can help you identify a Bald Cypress.

Bald Cypress trees planted in landscaping generally grow to a height of 50 to 70 feet, though in native forests the tree can reach towering heights of 43 to 46 meters (about 140 to 150 feet)! The bark is rough, interwoven, fibrous, and grey-brown in color. The bark is also thin, leaving great numbers of Bald Cypress vulnerable to fire, particularly through drought. [11.]

The trunk is about 1 meter (about 3 and 1/4 feet) in diameter and flared, or "fluted", at the base. When growing in its native wetland habitat often develops knobby root growth commonly called "knees", which stick out above the water around the tree. [10.]

The tree produces both male and female components, which mature in just one growing season from the previous year's buds. The flowers are typically described as brown and not showy. They form during the winter and are approximately 2 millimeters (or just under a tenth of an inch) long. Female flowers are green and form at the base of the catkins. They mature from October through December, opening in the spring. The cones of the Bald Cypress are much rounder than a typical oblong cone, typically 3 centimeters (1 and 1/4 inch) across (Coombes, 83). These cones will form alone or in groups of 2 or 3, turning from green or greenish purple to a brown or brownish purple color through maturation. Seeds are produced from the scales of the cone, and the Bald Cypress will produce seeds every year, though the tree will produce a good crop of seeds every 3 to 5 years. The flooded environment favorited by Bald Cypress helps to disperse the plant's seeds. [8.]

The foliage of the Bald Cypress is made of softer, light green or yellowish green flat needles formed in two ranks either spreading or spiraling (Coombes, 83). The needles are are typically 1/4 to 3/4 inch long and emerge late, changing color from orange to reddish orange before being shed in the fall. [10.], [2.]

Tall and Strong

The mighty Bald Cypress
The mighty Bald Cypress | Source

Bald Cypress Lumber

Old growth is notorious for its resistance to rot, but usually isn't differentiated from less resistant second growth at the lumber yard.
Old growth is notorious for its resistance to rot, but usually isn't differentiated from less resistant second growth at the lumber yard. | Source

Uses

Throughout history the Bald Cypress is well-known and well-utilized for its large size and resistance to decay. It has been reported that evidence of canoes carved out of single logs from Bald Cypress trees have been unearthed from a site in North Carolina dating back to as far as 2400 B.C. [1.]. In the middle ages the heavy wood of the Bald Cypress was used for large, ornate cathedral doors. Resin from the trees' cones was known to help heal skin irritations and rashes. [5.]

Bald Cypress is a source of food and shelter for various species of wildlife. Wild turkey, evening grosbeak, wood ducks and squirrels eat the seeds, and eagles and osprey nest in the heights of its top branches. [8.]

The Bald Cypress is an attractive vertical piece for landscaping. It can be clipped into a proper hedge, and its roots do not seem to disturb nearby sidewalks as much as other trees. Though adapted to wet climates, Bald Cypress is tolerant of almost any soil except alkaline. It is a low maintenance tree and only needs pruning to remove dead branches, unwanted lower branches, and to keep walkways clear. With a beautiful winter presentation, showy trunk, and sometimes even winter flowers, its use as a landscaping tree, particularly in cities, is encouraged by the U.S. Forest Service [6.]

In production, Bald Cypress is often used where rot-resistance is needed, like in exterior construction, boatbuilding and docks, fences and garden boxes, shingles, and caskets. It is also used for interior trim, cabinets and veneer. The lumber is typically a light, yellowish brown, with dark spots where fungus has attacked it. Listed as a softwood, cypress wood is characterized by its medium texture and straight grain. It is noted as having favoritable finishing properties [7.]

The older wood is more noted for its resistance to rot than younger wood, with old cypress growth being hailed as one of the more rot-resistant woods available. This is perhaps due to the increased levels of cypressene found in old growth trees, an oil produced by the tree thought to possibly provide protection from decay. [11.]


Our Friend, the Bald Cypress

Whether providing food and homes for wildlife, suitable wood for woodworkers, or awe-striking beauty and strength to nature lovers, the Bald Cypress is unquestionably a tree worthy of attention. Seek one out by its classic shape, needle laden leaves and rounded cones and befriend one of North America's originals - the Bald Cypress.

References

[1.] Adams, Kevin. "Baldcypress Trees, Taxodium distichum in North Carolina." Kevin Adams Photography Writing Teaching. Accessed online 24 Jun 2014. http://www.kadamsphoto.com/nature_recreation/baldcypress_trees.htm

[2.] "Bald Cypress". Wildlife Library - Plants and Fungi. National Wildlife Federation. Accessed online 25 Jun 2014. http://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Wildlife-Library/Plants/Bald-Cypress.aspx

[3.] Clary, Karen H. "Flora Fact: Knobby Knees". Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine. Accessed online 24 Jun 2014. http://www.tpwmagazine.com/archive/2012/jun/scout3_florafact_baldcypress/

[4.] Coombes, Allen J. "Trees". DK Publishing, Inc. 1992.

[5.] Corder, Jessica R. and Lauren Underwood. "Bald Cypress". Bellarmine University. Nov 2004. Accessed online 24 Jun 2014. http://www.bellarmine.edu/faculty/drobinson/baldcypress.asp

[6.] Gilman, Edward F. and Dinnis G. Watson. "Taxodium distichum Baldcypress". Fact Sheet ST-620. Oklahoma Forestry Service. Oct 1994. Accessed online 25 Jun 2014. http://www.forestry.ok.gov/Websites/forestry/Images/trees,baldcypress.pdf

[7.] Meier, Eric. "Cypress". The Wood Database. Accessed 24 Jun 2014. http://www.wood-database.com/lumber-identification/softwoods/cypress/

[8.] "Taxodium distichum (L.) Rich. Baldcypress". USDA Forest Service. Accessed online 23 Jun 2014. http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/Volume_1/taxodium/distichum.htm.

[9.] "Taxodium distichum (L.) Rich. Baldcypress". United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. |Accessed online 24 Jun 2014. http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=tadi2

[10.] "Taxodium distichum var. distichum". Plant Finder. Missouri Botanical Garden. Accessed online 25 Jun 2014. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=m510.

[11.] USDA NRCS Plant Materials Program. "Bald Cypress, Taxodium distichum (L.) L.C. Rich.". Plant Fact Sheet. Accessed online 25 Jun 2014. http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_tadi2.pdf.


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