BALD CYPRESS TREES

Post last updated: April 11th, 2019

cypress tree budding out in spring
cypress tree budding out in spring

Cypress trees are ancient. In Palmetto  (the Quarterly Journal of the Florida Native Plant Society, Volume 32: Number 4  — 2015), they are said to date back to the Mesozoic, “when they shared the planet with dinosaurs.” The trees “can live longer than half a millennium and grow larger than 17 feet thick and 125 feet tall.”

The largest cypress tree trunk I have ever seen was on the Gardens for Connoisseurs Tour in Atlanta, May 19, 2016. It was near Peachtree Battle Avenue NW and Woodward Way NW.

Cypress tree on Peachtree Battle Avenue NW, Gardens for Connoisseurs Tour, Atlanta, 5/19/16
Cypress tree on Peachtree Battle Avenue NW
Gardens for Connoisseurs Tour, Atlanta, 5/19/16

and I was so dumbfounded by the sheer size of the tree trunk, I have no memory of looking up to see the height of the tree.  I should have taken my shoe off and put it up next to the tree trunk to help you visualize the size.

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees got the “bald” designation to distinguish them from evergreen cypress trees in other parts of the world. The bark of the tree trunk is brown to reddish in color and fibrous (think of a coconut). Most cypress trees live in swampy areas but are adaptable. Of our two cypress trees, one is planted in the yard and the other in a low, moist garden bed. Both trees have access to regular watering because Poppie has a water-to-water heat pump that regularly disperses water through an overhead sprinkler system.

Maintenance

It sheds small twigs all year long so there is some maintenance. I find the small twigs less annoying than the mess a magnolia tree makes with its falling leaves. In autumn, leaves of a bald cypress turn a dull copper and shed, forming a dense mat under the tree.

Our cypress tree in the fall
Our cypress tree in the fall

Most people are fascinated with the pointy knees, or pneumatophores, that protrude out of the stagnant water where they thrive. On dry land, they don’t produce the knees but we have at least one rounded root twenty feet out from one of the trees that I suspect is an attempt at growing knees.  Not much chance of that from constant haircuts by the riding mower. Inside the wildflower bed where one of our cypress trees resides is a very obvious, pointy knee. I found it by stumbling over it. Knees can grow six feet tall and indicate average flood depths.

Cypress knee?

 

Bald cypress knees at Gibbs Gardens, Ballground, Georgia

Steve Bender, The Grumpy Gardener of Southern Living Magazine, says “Cypress knees are woody spires that grow from the roots of bald cypresses that are planted in moist soil. Knees can stand up to 2 feet tall. It’s thought that they help to stabilize the trees in soft soil. When they become a problem, the only answer is to cut them to the ground. This won’t stop others from growing, unfortunately.”

Flowering and Seeds

According to Native Florida Plants by Robert G. Haehle and Joan Brockwell (2004), bald cypress trees have male and female blooms.

They refer to the male flower as 4 to 5-inch “panicle” (any loose, diversely branching flower cluster [dictionary.com]). However, according to the University of Florida, those little white tassels hanging from the ends of the leaf branch are cypress twig gall midge. A tiny fly, a Midge, lays her eggs there and the white capsule forms around them. The galls drop to the ground in November, the larvae overwinter in them and hatch in the summer. The cypress tree is the only known host for the Midge and no harm comes to the tree.

The female flowers, per Haehle and Brockwell, are “globe-shaped” balls that appear on the tree in early spring and begin to fall off in early July. The balls are known as cones and exude a sticky sap. Once dry, the cones can be cracked open to harvest the seeds. I suspect the trees have to reach a certain maturity to produce the cones because I don’t remember seeing them much before 2007. By then the trees were about twenty years old.

Cypress tree cones
Cypress tree cones

Tropical Storm Beryl liberated many of the cones.  During a lull in the storm, I collected a bunch of them for you to see.

Close-up of Cypress Tree Cones

 

cypress cone babies smaller than your thumb
cypress cone babies smaller than your thumb

The cones are woody, one inch and larger, covered with “loosely fitting scales” that look like engraved, curving grooves on the cone surface. The first time I saw one I thought of a turtle. These cones naturally release triangular shaped seeds in autumn and winter but I’ve never seen the seeds. I took a hammer to one of them when it was green and unripe. The interior was a mass of white sections among a reddish sticky sap that smelled like pine tree sap. In the thirty years I have lived on the Southern Rural Route, only four cypress trees have sprouted from seeds.

Saving Florida Cypress Trees

Before settlers populated Florida, according to the Palmetto article, old-growth cypress swamps covered more than 27 million acres. The construction of railroads and roads created a demand for cypress lumber which is resistant to decay. The largest trees were harvested but some cypress trees were always left standing. Such selective harvesting changed at the end of the 20th Century when the market for cypress grew to include lumber for fences, shingles, shakes, and garden mulch. To meet the growing demand, loggers entered cypress swamps in the 1970’s with heavy equipment, which flattened the ground, to clear-cut mulch logs. There were no regulations preventing this invasive bottom logging but by 1990, mat logging was introduced to prevent some of the surface damage. Mat logging involved the use of small logs to construct corduroy roads for the heavy equipment. No one knows which of the two logging methods is the more benign but it is obvious that clear-cutters transform the ecosystems and the cypress swamps will probably not recover in our lifetimes.

Environmental groups (Save Our Cypress Campaign, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and the Gulf Restoration Network) have attempted to stop cypress clear-cutting but it will ultimately be up to you, as a consumer, to stop buying cypress mulch.

You might enjoy this article by another cypress tree fan at Dave’s Garden. She bought a 50 cent cypress tree seedling.

Also at Dave’s Garden is an article on how to grow cypress trees from seeds.

 

11 thoughts on “BALD CYPRESS TREES”

  1. I mean really? Blow drying your balls? Running around in the rain? Really? I should have your head examined. I’ll admit that is one beautiful tree.

  2. We have multiple cypress trees on our property in Louisiana growing out of a bayou. Unfortunately this year they produced these cones you speak of and after falling on the driveway and driven over or stepped on they release a sap which adheres to the bottom of shoes or our dog’s paws. Clearly made a mess on our floors/carpet in our house. Any recommendations? Should we expect this to continue on an annual basis?
    Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. Most of our cones fall under the cypress tree into a very large flower bed so I haven’t had a problem. I plugged this phrase into my favorite search engine: “how to clean sap from cypress tree cones.” There were a number of sites dealing specifically with this problem including a slew of youtube videos. Hope this helps.

  3. I have two Cypress trees in my backyard. The squirrels eat the balls (cones) but only a bit of each ball and throw the rest down on the wooden benches that surround the tree. They leave sap all over the benches and litter the ground with about a million pieces and full balls. Are they poisonous to pets? I raise guide dogs from puppies and I worry they might be harmed if they eat one. Does anyone know? My trees just started producing them after 18 years of growing in the yard. We can’t cut them down as they are endangered here in FL.

    1. Hi Linda, sorry to take so long to get back to you. I’ve never heard of cypress trees being endangered in Florida but I wouldn’t cut mine down for the world. Their beauty is just unsurpassed. The library books I used for research were long ago returned to the library. However, the most authoritative answer I could find on the web came from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, http://www.wildflower.org/expert/show.php?id=9937 which DID NOT find the cones toxic to dogs on several toxic databases they checked. However, some of the databases they checked are outside the growing range for cypress trees and may simply not have included the cypress tree on their database. Since you are raising guide dogs, you might wish to contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture about their databases. I tried the plant database mentioned in this article — http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_tadi2.pdf — and it didn’t recognize “bald cypress tree.” Best of luck with your puppies!

      1. We just had our backyard Cypress tree cut down and it was almost completely hollow inside. Now we’re worried about our larger Cypress tree in the front yard. I HATE the thought of cutting it down but am terrified this big monster will land on our house during a hurricane. Is there anyone I can hire to find out if it’s hollow without cutting it down ?

  4. I am trying to find out if it’s o.k. to put one in my back yard. Will the roots grow under my house. I live in a subdivision and I have one place in the back I could plant it, I also have an aboveground pool.

    1. Tonya – With an above-ground pool, I wouldn’t recommend putting it in your back yard because they grow “knees” which could end up in the middle of your pool liner. The roots may grow under the house but I don’t think it would be a problem (don’t quote me). An underplanting is helpful because it does grow roots that come up out of the ground, form a half circle and grow back into the ground. An accident waiting to happen… One of ours has an underplanting and one doesn’t (this one is regularly mowed beneath it and has no root problems except one “knee” that is kept mowed down.
      Not all cypress trees are alike. Some are very narrow and without a regular source of water, they won’t get too big. Both of ours are large and frothy because they get regular water. The dripline, from the trunk of the tree, stretches out fifteen feet in all directions. It’s no big deal for us but we live on two acres, not in a subdivision.
      They are beautiful trees and if you really want one, it would probably be better in the front yard as the ONLY tree. You would be the envy of your neighbors — they would all want to know what kind of tree you had. If you have a curved walkway to your front door, you could plant it 15 to 17 feet from the edge of the front porch on the outside of the curved walkway. The shade it would provide would then allow you to grow small annuals/perennials and it would be a beautiful entrance. If you have a different walkway arrangement, plant it near the edge of the property — keeping in mind that dripline — and again underplant it with pretty flowers.

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