On a quiet winter morning, a big bald bald-cypress guards the swimming hole at Wacissa Springs, Jefferson County in Florida's Big Bend region.
There are two forms of "cypress" trees in the southeastern U.S. Some authorities consider them to be varieties of a single species, but other experts refer to them as two distinct species. The current trend seems to be that they are distinct species, so Floridata will treat them that way. Bald-cypress (Taxodium distichum) has linear leaves, whereas pond-cypress (T. ascendens) has awl shaped or scalelike leaves. The leaves of bald-cypress spread out on the branches, but those of pond-cypress are closely adpressed to the branches. The leaves of bald-cypress are arranged in two ranks on opposite sides of the stem, whereas those of pond-cypress are overlapping. The branchlets of bald-cypress tend to spread outward, while those of pond-cypress are more ascending.
Bald-cypress's feathery foliage makes a fine foil for the golfball size immature green cones.
In fall, bald-cypress's foliage turns russet-gold before dropping from the tree.
Bald-cypress is a large tree, to more than 130 ft (40 m) tall, with a trunk diameter at breast height of up to 10 ft (3 m) or more. The young tree is pyramid shaped, but with age the top flattens and the crown may spread as much as 60 ft (18 m) or more. The lower trunk is often greatly enlarged and buttressed. The bark is reddish gray or brown with long fibrous ridges that peel off in strips. Unusual among coniferous needle bearing trees, bald-cypress is deciduous. The needles turn rusty brown, then almost red before dropping in late fall or early winter. Bald-cypresses, especially when growing in or near the water, produce tapered "knees" to 6 ft (2 m) high that stick up from the roots. The cones, maturing in late summer, are round and about an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter.
When growing in standing water, the bald-cypress typically form flared trunk bases as demonstrated by this trio growing in a flooded sinkhole in Jack's front yard.
Bald-cypress occurs naturally in swamps, flood plains and along the edges of lakes and rivers on the southeastern U.S. Coastal Plain from southeastern Delaware to southern Texas and up the Mississippi Valley to southern Illinois. It often occurs in pure stands: cypress swamps. Pond-cypress, on the other hand, usually occurs in smaller, flatwoods ponds and shallow lake margins in a more restricted area at low elevations, from southeastern Virginia to southeastern Louisiana.
Bald-cypress likes an acidic soil and will develop yellowing of the leaves if grown in neutral or calcareous soils. Young trees grow rapidly, but they can live 500 years or more. Light: Young seedlings and saplings can tolerate light shade, but they will need full sun to reach their maximum potential. Moisture: Although they occur naturally in the wettest of places, bald-cypress will thrive in normal, even dry soil. I long ago learned from an old forester that plants don't grow where they grow best; they grow where they can get away with it. Bald-cypress is just about the only tree that can survive long periods of flooding. But, it will grow faster, larger, and be healthier if not subjected to flooding at all. Bald-cypress doesn't often get the chance to grow in rich, well drained soils because other trees (that can't tolerate prolonged flooding) out-compete it. Established bald-cypress trees are surprisingly tolerant of drought. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5-10. Propagation: The seeds of bald-cypress germinate in moist soil, but not under water. If you see bald-cypress growing in standing water, you can be sure it was dry when the seed germinated.
In the foreground young bald-cypress trees planted around Jack's Catfish Pond have turned rust red in late autumn while the tall mature specimens in the background are still showing some color too. Click to download a large (800x600) version of this image.
Bald-cypress leaves are arranged on little branchlets both of which are shed in the fall - this one though is hanging on for just a little while longer... Click to download a large (800x600) version of this image.
Bald-cypress makes a fine specimen tree for very large landscapes. They are best suited to wet areas, lake margins, and the like, but as noted above, they will thrive in normal, even dry soils. The feathery pale green foliage is attractive in spring and summer, and again in fall when it turns reddish. A nice shade tree in summer, bald-cypress lets the sun shine through in winter.
Bald-cypress has been called the eternal wood because it is extremely resistant to decay. Vast swamps have been clearcut of their cypress for construction of docks, bridges, boats, and buildings. Draining and filling of southeastern cypress swamps and centuries of over harvest have severely reduced the number of these magnificent trees, especially old, large ones.
The largest (by volume) bald-cypress tree known grows in Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It is 83 ft (25 m) tall with a trunk 17 ft (5 m) in diameter and a crown spread of 85 ft (26 m). The largest bald-cypress in Florida (based on volume) is "The Senator", a monster 118 ft (36 m) tall with a trunk diameter of 11 ft (3.4 m) and a crown spread of 57 ft (17 m). Florida's champion grows in Big Tree Park, Seminole County, near Longwood, Florida.
Low water levels in this flooded sinkhole reveal a surface studded with bald-cypress knees some of which are more than 5 ft (1.5 m) tall.
A third species of bald-cypress occurs in Mexico and along the Rio Grande in Texas: Taxodium mucronatum has evergreen foliage and is much less cold hardy than the two more northern species. The bald-cypress family is an ancient group of conifers that once shared the landscape with dinosaurs. Today the remaining 18 species (in 10 genera) are confined to North America, eastern Asia and Tasmania, and are relics of a former worldwide distribution. The California redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are the only other New World species in the family. The dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) from China is the closest living relative of the American genus Taxodium. Some authors don't recognize the Taxodiaceae (bald-cypress family) as a distinct family and include its species in the family Cupressaceae, the true cypresses.
The function of the cypress knees has been a source of much discussion. One theory is that they take in oxygen for the roots in what is generally a very low oxygen environment. Another is that they provide anchors for the tree in the flood plain environment that is characteristically loose and unstable. When lightning strikes a pine tree, it burns a strip along the trunk down to the ground and usually kills the tree. But when a bald-cypress is stuck by lightning, it usually explodes, sending giant splinters a hundred yards or more in all directions. But the tree doesn't die, instead it sprouts back from the damaged trunk!