Post last updated: April 11th, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tropical Storm Beryl liberated many of the cones. During a lull in the storm, I collected a bunch of them for you to see.
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.