Bald Cypress - a Great Tree for the Home Landscape

By Frank Goodhart
Bald cypress (Taxodicum distichum) grove. Photo by Jiaqi Zhang
Bald cypress (Taxodicum distichum) grove. Photo by Jiaqi Zhang

Bald Cypress for the landscape

At last, bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is getting some well-deserved attention. No one is ex­hibiting these plants on floats in home­ town parades, but the species and various cultivars are finally appearing in leading­ edge nurseries. Keen gardeners and nurs­ery professionals are wondering why bald cypress has not been grown more often. When bald cypress is mentioned, most people, even those who know conifers, envision a plant in an arboretum or botanical garden, or in any case very near water, as in the photo above. The next thing that is usually noted are the knees, those ap­pendages to the roots that rise above the water level when planted next to, or in, ponds, rivers or swamps. Bald cypress seems to have the status of a novelty tree. Indeed, bald cypress and its cultivars are very underutilized in the landscape and unap­preciated considering their endurance, longevity and general landscape value.

Bald cypress foliage is feathery and delicate. Photo courtesy of Conifer Kingdom
Bald cypress foliage is feathery and delicate. Photo courtesy of Conifer Kingdom

Different kinds of Taxodium

The bald cypress is the best known of the three species of Taxodium, and the one which has been most often planted. Pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) is a junior ver­sion of bald cypress and is also native to the USA, whereas the Montezuma cypress (Taxodium distichum var. mexicanum) is native to Mexico. There are a number of other common and local names for bald­ cypress, including common bald cypress, bald-cypress, cypress, southern cypress, swamp cypress, red-cypress, yellow-cy­press, white-cypress and gulf cypress.

My first experience seeing Tax­odium was in a swamp in a bird sanctuary in southern Florida. At that location the water was at various depths; bald cypress was growing in deeper water, whereas pond cypress was growing in shallow water and appeared to be stunted in slightly deeper water. I have since learned that low, but not swampy areas may con­tain a mix of taxa. Both, in their native habitats, grow in areas where there is high water availability; that is, in coastal re­gions with a good supply of fresh water such as deltas, swamps and lowlands where there is a seasonal swelling and ebbing of water, and also along streams, ponds, and rivers. Ironically, bald cypress is much more tolerant of water than the pond cy­press, which grows on higher ground.

Native Habitat for Bald Cypress

The native habitat includes the Atlantic coastal plain from Delaware to Florida, and then westward in coastal states bordering the Gulf of Mexico and Texas. It extends from the Gulf States northward into southeast Oklahoma and then via the Mississippi River valley to the southern parts of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. In the non-coastal states, its habitat is very lim­ited. It almost always appears in elevation not exceeding 99 feet (30 m), except on the Edwards Plateau in eastern Texas where it grows at an elevation of 989-1748 ft (300-530m). The US Forest Service has a good map of the native range of Taxodium distichum.

T. d. 'Peve Minaret'. Photo courtesy of Conifer Kingdom
T. d. 'Peve Minaret'. Photo courtesy of Conifer Kingdom

Growing Bald Cypress

Many bald cypress in arboreta and botanical gardens are planted next to water to facilitate knee de­velopment. But bald cypress need not grow in or near water. It grows well in av­erage soil conditions and can tolerate slightly alkaline (not extremely alkaline) and acidic soils in a sunny location. Bald­ cypress hardiness zones are listed as 4-9, 5-10, and also 4-11. There are reports of bald cypress growing in Minnesota and New York in zone 5 or colder. It can with­ stand substantial wind, ice, and snow with little or no damage.

For example, an allee of bald cypress was planted at Longwood Gardens before 1955. These trees are very large and have withstood the test of time, soaking up a number of Mother Nature’s worst as­saults, including the extremely heavy snowfalls in January and February 2010. It is speculated that bald cypress with­stands weather extremes because of its extensive root system. The leafless winter branches do not collect or support a great deal of snow.

Bald cypress is not seen often in the northern landscape, per­haps due to the popularity of a similar looking tree, the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). There are many reasons to grow bald cypress: in the north, the leaves remain on the tree almost four weeks longer than other deciduous trees and the orange fall color is eye-catching. The leaf litter, which is actually a mix of the leaves and some branch tips, falls di­rectly under the tree and provides colorful mulch, eliminating the need for leaf re­moval. The new seed cones are colored a slight pinkish-green and are symmetric, and the tree itself provides a fantastically beautiful silhouette in the winter. At places where the bark is fragmenting, there are pretty patches of orange-brown color showing through.

Leaves drop seasonally at different times depending on the latitude. In the south it may be considered to be ‘tardily deciduous’, while in the north it is fully decidu­ous. Leaf color varies through the season, starting off light green and then chang­ing to darker green, before reaching the orange to golden-yellow coloration in late fall and winter.

The branches on younger trees may be slightly ascending and become more horizontal upon aging. The bark is thin and appears as variably sized sections that are sepa­rated from each other. On older trees, it is charcoal to ashy gray and the fissures be­ tween the sections are an orange tinted tan, an attractive feature. Large patches of orange-peeling bark appear on young trees and trees exposed to high amounts of water.

Knees on a group of wild Taxodium Distichum (bald cypress)
Knees on a group of wild Taxodium Distichum (bald cypress)

Bald Cypress Knees

Knee development by bald cy­press is a novel feature and one that does not occur in any other conifer species except for Glyptostrobus pensilis and other Taxodium species. Technically known as pneumatophores, knees are root ap­pendages that develop on bald cypress when the tree is planted in or near water. Knees are irregular conical structures that protrude around the tree above the water line or ground level. Small knees may be more like squat cones, while older knees may be strongly conical and irregular. Knees may extend to quite a distance from the tree and their size is de­pendent more or less on the tree’s expo­sure to water and the tree’s age. Hence, trees that are basically submerged will produce more and larger knees; but as a landscape tree with water available only from normal rainfall, no knees develop. Younger trees in a moist or wet area may exhibit knees of various heights from a few inches to many feet. There are litera­ture reports of knees as high as six and a half feet (2m). Knees do not have the capability to sprout, whereas sprouting can occur from the stumps of cut trees.

The function of knees has never been adequately explained, but there are sev­eral theories. One is that they provide extra support and help to prevent exten­sive damage from high winds that may be experienced in the tree’s native habitat. Another is that the high starch content of the knees provides a back-up food source for trees whose roots are exposed to water much of the time.

Bald cypress, when exposed to water for an extensive period of time, form broad conical buttresses (root flares). The size of the buttress is directly related to both the time that it is exposed to water and the depth of the water. In a swamp, or an area that is periodically flooded, the flared base of the tree is quite evident. Those that are planted close to or next to water will show a significant root flare at the base of the buttress similar to Metasequoia in both form and color. However, landscape trees planted in an area without extra moisture exhibit buttresses similar to those of many other trees.

As one might surmise, the biomass produced by trees growing in a wet or moist condition versus those on higher land receiving water only via normal rain­ fall differ significantly. Landscape trees will have more limbs, and hence more leaves, whereas those exposed to water will grow fewer limbs and leaves. Bald cypress growing in wet conditions can become massive in time, but the growth rate of trees growing in a normal landscape will be greater.

T. d. 'Codys Feathers'. Photo courtesy of Conifer Kingdom
T. d. 'Codys Feathers'. Photo courtesy of Conifer Kingdom

Bald Cypress Cultivars

Until recently, bald cypress did not have a great number of cultivars, but unique new ones have been identified and propagated in recent years. The following is a list of most cultivars currently in the trade. A longer list prepared by Laurence C. Hatch can be found at www.cultivar.org, and it includes many names of historical interest.

Note that different cultivars offer choices in height-width ratio (narrow to broad), growth rate, and weeping and upright forms. Some were found as seedlings and others as witch’s brooms.

‘Monarch of Illinois’, a wide-spreading and leaderless tree which would be effec­tive in a large landscape. Another similar cultivar having a similar height and breadth is ‘Nelson’, which does have a central leader, coupled with a horizontal branching habit. An extra attraction is that it cones heavily every other year.

Shawnee BraveTM is a chance seedling that was propagated and distributed by Earl Cully. The limbs are branched up­ward at about 45-50 degrees and it has formerly attained a height of 75 feet (23 m) and a width of 18 feet (6 m). It has never formed cones and propagation is via chip budding onto seedlings grown using a northern seed source to ensure maximum hardiness.

Taxodium distichum 'Peve Minaret' pruned annually. Photo by Sara Malone
Taxodium distichum 'Peve Minaret' pruned annually. Photo by Sara Malone

Dwarf Bald Cypress Cultivars

Several dwarf cultivars derived from bald cypress have become popular in col­lectorsgardens in the past few years. These include ‘Cascade Falls’, a weeping form from New Zealand and ‘Peve Minaret’, an upright small tree from the Netherlands.


‘Cascade Falls’ bald cypress is now widely distributed in the USA. It can be high grafted or grafted low and trained high to obtain the weeping effect. In either case the multiple branches weep from the crown providing an open feath­ery habit that is distinctive from the ever­green weeping conifers. It is normally seen in the nursery in a form many times higher than wide and can be kept more narrow and shorter by pruning in win­ter. The leaves turn the typical orange­-brown in late autumn and the weeping branch structure itself is a marvelous win­ter landscape feature.

The history of ‘Cascade Falls’ is well documented; it is traced back to a noted New Zealand horticulturalist, Graeme Platt, and his wife. They bought some “swamp cypress” from a wholesale nurs­ery in Auckland during 1984-1985. After planting and observing them over a pe­riod of time, they noticed that many trees were twisted and deformed. But one tree had a cascading growth pattern that visitors to the garden remarked upon. The Platts allowed it to grow at the edge of a pond for 15 years and then gave some scions to David and Noeline Sampson to graft. After two years of evaluation, the Samp­sons recognized the value of the plant, obtained the intellectual rights, and put it into propagation.

‘Peve Minaret’ is dwarf conical tree seedling derived from a freely pollinated bald cypress. It is described by Job Vergeldt as follows: “The dark green nee­dles are smaller than those of the species and somewhat variable in length. Espe­cially the tips of the needles are densely congested. An eight year old tree reaches only one meter (3 ft).”

Descriptions of the ultimate size and growth rate of ‘Peve Minaret’ by various nurseries differ somewhat. Currently, the 10 year size is generally listed as eight to 10 feet (2.5-3m) tall with a width about two to four feet (.5-1.2m). Some specimens seem to be rather tall and narrow. As the tree is widely adapt­able to different growing conditions, it fills an important niche in landscape design, offering a size and ap­pearance nuance not available with other woody plants.

In the photo above, you see a group of 'Peve Minaret' at ACS website editor Sara's Malone's Petaluma, CA ranch. She chose what she describes as a 'wettish' part of her property, but notes that in her Mediterranean climate the trees thrive on just twice-weekly drip irrigation. For novelty value, she prunes the branches annually to between 1-2", thereby creating what she calls a 'forest of green totem-poles.' Pruning Taxodium is easy; they are very forgiving trees. This treatment would allow even the smallest garden to include a bald cypress!

T. d. 'Peve Yellow'. Photo courtesy of Conifer Kingdom
T. d. 'Peve Yellow'. Photo courtesy of Conifer Kingdom

Job Vergeldt describes ‘Peve Yellow’ as a “yellow-needled cultivar originating as a seedling from the same group as ‘Peve Minaret’. It is an upright deciduous conifer with golden-yellow foliage in spring. During the summer, the color of the foliage is somewhat paler and finally it is light yellow to pale yellowish-green. ‘Peve Yellow’ is a pyramidal, fairly densely branched tree growing only half as strong as the species.”

Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens) foliage. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens) foliage. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Pond Cypress

The popularity of pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) has also grown in recent years, partly because it is smaller, nar­rower, and more conical than the bald cypress. One could say it is a junior version in every respect as there are size dif­ferences in ultimate height and width as well as the sizes of the leaves and cones. Also, its branch pattern is much more vertical. While both the pond cypress and bald cypress grow in similar locations and places, there are notable differences be­tween them. Pond cypress grows in its nat­ural habitat in wet areas near sources of water, but not in the deeper or sustained water levels where bald cypress grows. The two trees sometimes grow in the same area adjacent to one another, but the pond cypress will be on the higher ground.

This is quite evident in Florida where cy­press domes or hummocks are surrounded by swamp. The fact that it grows along ponds, streams, and rivers indicates also that it does not receive the same nutrients from wet ground that bald cypress might. While it will form knees, they are smaller and less frequent than those of bald cypress.

The leaves of pond cypress are shorter and thinner than bald cypress. The ranking of the leaves is also different in that those of pond cypress are upright. The cones are smaller than those of bald­ cypress, but the off-round shape is similar. The bark is deeply furrowed and brown. In time, pond cypress can reach a height of 60-80 feet 18.2-13.6m) and a width of 15-20 feet (4.5-6.Im). The National Register of Big Trees lists the largest tree as one in Bowie, Maryland: it is 100 feet (30.3m) high, has a spread of 74 feet (22.4m) and a trunk circumference of 150 inches(3.8m).

Pond cypress also has gorgeous fall color
Pond cypress also has gorgeous fall color

The natural distribution of pond cypress is from Virginia to Florida along the Atlantic seaboard and westward into the Gulf of Mexico states of Alabama, Mis­sissippi and Louisiana. It does not appear in the upper parts of the Mississippi River delta and estuaries, as does the bald cy­press. The hardiness zone is often listed as 5-9 with reference to extension some­what outside these zones both on the warmer and colder sides. Hence, it is less hardy than bald cypress.

Pond cypress is an extremely under-utilized conifer. In the landscape, it has a magnetic drawing power and it at­tracts one’s immediate attention. It seems that it is just the right size for the home landscape, due to its columnar habit and small stature. It is straight and has an upward branching pattern. The leaves are feathery; the fall color is a won­derful version of a rusty orange, and the winter aspect seems just right, especially on a bleak, cloudy day. This, together with the fact that it is easy to grow and care for, makes it truly an outstanding deciduous tree specimen in the landscape. There are other appropriate uses for pond cypress, as well. It can be used in slightly wet sites in random order or even as a screen together with some other shrubs that tolerate high mois­ture levels.

Taxodium ascendens 'Morris'
Taxodium ascendens 'Morris'

Pond Cypress Cultivars

There are two columnar and slower growing cultivars derived from pond cy­press that can fill an important niche in the landscape since they are more moderate in size yet have the same favorable cultural characteristics of the species.

  • ‘Morris’ (DebonairTM). Quoting Tony Aiello of the Morris Arboretum on the history of the pond cy­press cultivar ‘Morris’: “The original plant is from the (John and Lydia) Morris Estate. It was planted hardy.” ‘Morris’ is an extremely narrow columnar tree; the branches of the still existing original tree at Morris Arboretum (pictured above) sweep strongly up­ward, in the area of 70-80 de­grees.
  • ‘Nutans’ Another commonly available pond­ cypress is Taxodium ascendens ‘Nutans’. The foliage is delicate and strap-like and the tree is narrow and slow growing. The leaves have the same rusty orange color in the fall as the species. This cultivar, as well as ‘Morris’, has wonderfully tall narrow silhouettes in winter.

Fortu­nately, the availability of these special forms of Taxodium is increasing and cer­tainly more will be seen in the landscape in the future. If you haven’t discovered how a Taxodium might enhance your landscape, now is a great time to explore!

Comments

Christopher Taylor

Beautiful trees got hooked when I saw my first bald cypress in Va. Beach. Had some diseased oaks removed and will replace with bald cypress.

Frank

Christopher,
Appreciate your comment. Glad to see that will replace your diseased trees with Baldcypresses.

Frank

Kathy Freshley

Never knew their fall color could be that red and you could prune heavily. Great article, Frank.

Byron Richards

We have several bald and pond cypress growing well at 2,600 ft. One I planted got so large it had to be removed (sorry). Water Fall also doing well.

Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Thank you for this article. I especially needed your excellent description of the differences between the bald cypress and the pond cypress, as I live in Florida and see them both.
I also frequent the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, PA when I am up north, and I will be sure to seek out the pond cypress cultivar 'Morris'— what an exciting specimen!

Sandra Lund

Thank you for this information; mine is the only bald cypress here on the central coast of Oregon so far as I know. With what growing suggestions could be found, it is in a sunny area along the creek, as yet not found by the local beaver, boomer or other animals hazardous to trees along the creek! It is showing now above the brush left to protect it, a joy to see as it increases annually in size. A gift, now more appreciated after reading your article~~ thank you.

Frank

Sandra,
Wonderful to hear from you; thanks for your kind comment.
Frank

Rene Wenleder

Frank, I really enjoyed your article. I have planted quite a few bald cypress on my property over the years, including of a grove of 7 planted by the Ware River off Mobjack Bay , and a couple of Peve's. I agree with you they are a majestic under appreciated conifer.

Frank Goodhart

Renee,
Nice to hear from you and learn of your success/satisfaction.
Frank

Tim Dobson

Planted Taxodium distichum in 1977 in Windsor (opposite river-side to Detroit) Zone 6. In heavy clay but an initial deep hole for root development. Aside from initial chlorosis, quickly resolved, the tree is maintenance free with bumper crop of seed cones each year. Currently competing against adjacent broad Gleditisia and Norway spruce. Seems to be developing very well. Within 5 ft. of swimming pool and not lifting the pavement or impacting the pool. Northern Hardy. In the midst of planting additional 7 for a very wet waterfront yard in Toronto. Curious to get evidence if Tap root development re-establishes when young root-pruned and potted trees are installed in landscape. i know tap roots are severed by nurseries in production. However, cuttings for rooting propagation do develop tap roots.