Going Bald — Cypress, that is

Bald Cypress Fall Color

I’ve got a thing for deciduous conifers. A conifer is a needle-leaved tree. Pines are conifers; so are firs, hemlocks, junipers, and, well, you get the idea. We usually think of conifers as evergreen — for good reason. Most of them are.

But a select few shed their leaves every autumn, just like maples and oaks. Thus the term, deciduous conifer.  Two such trees are native to the southeastern United States: Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens). Of these two, Bald Cypress is much more widespread. It’s so tough that landscape companies in the piedmont region use it frequently in urban and suburban settings.

Technically, it’s native to coastal plain swamps, but with help from humans, you can find healthy bald cypress stands in piedmont wetlands. Because the floodplain on our property adjoins a wetland, I knew bald cypress would be happy there. So I planted three young trees about 17 years ago in a low spot close to the wetland.

All three are thirty to forty feet high. Every spring, new bright green feathery leaves adorn the branches. Every fall, those leaves turn a spectacular orangy rust color and linger that way on the trees for several weeks, barring violent wind/rain storms. After leaf fall, the ground is carpeted with rusty feather-leaves until they merge with the soil.

Winter, however, is when these trees really stand out. The bases of their trunks flute out more widely each year as they settle and spread their roots. Knees have begun popping up quite a distance from the trunks. I trip over them regularly when I walk in that area, but I don’t mind. I think the knees just add to the presence of these trees.

As they mature, their reddish bark hangs in strips, providing shaggy appeal. They have no pests that I know of, and they handle drought as easily as they do floods. I can see why landscapers use them.

I love the way they lend presence to the summer green forest canopy, then transform into architectural sculptures for the winter months. I highly recommend this species to any southeastern piedmont gardener seeking something a little different for your landscape.

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  1. #1 by matthew on January 23, 2011 - 5:37 pm

    Bald Cypress do well in upland soils and full sun conditions as well.

    • #2 by piedmontgardener on January 23, 2011 - 6:13 pm

      Yes, they do, Matthew. They are tough, versatile trees. However, I still prefer to use them in wetter spots, more closely resembling their native coastal swamps. For one thing, they can handle intermittently wet soils better than many upland-adapted species.

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