Baldcypress, Taxodium distichum

Add a little southern charm to your community by selecting the baldcypress for your next planting project. Commonly found in the swamplands of the Southeastern United States, baldcypress shares the emblematic qualities of its native landscape–beautiful, calm, mysterious, and very tough.

Don’t be fooled by this old southern sentry; it needs neither steamy summers nor slow-flowing swamps to thrive. Baldcypress survives tough urban planting sites due to having evolved in growing conditions that include alternate periods of flooding and drought, low-oxygen soils, as well as extreme heat. Not only that, but baldcypress is capable of tolerating cold temperatures down into the teens and 20s, giving this tree more than a fighting chance of fending off our Washington winters. Skeptical? Don’t be. Baldcypress is an approved street tree in the City of Spokane.

Baldcypress with prolific cypress knees near Gainesville, FL. Photo by Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson of Alachua Conservation Trust, Gainesville, FL

A collection of characteristics not common to other trees adds to the appeal of the baldcypress. It is a deciduous conifer, bearing needles and cone fruits like an evergreen but shedding its leaves every Fall like a deciduous shade tree. Similar to a deciduous tree, baldcypress is one of the only conifers that will resprout from the stump after being cut. Baldcypress have also been known to produce more than one growth ring in a year’s time in its native habitat… interesting, right?

The signature feature of the baldcypress is its distinctive cypress “knees.” Cypress knees, as can be seen in the photo with this article, are buttressed woody structures that protrude upwards from the root system. Many scientific minds have mulled the purpose cypress knees serve; their true function however remains an enduring enigma in science.

You’re probably thinking, “No way are we planting that tree. Those cypress knees will destroy sidewalks and wreak havoc on the mowing equipment!” Not to fear: research from the University of Florida suggests that baldcypress will not produce knees when planted in drier uplands or managed landscapes. Empirical evidence from around the country reinforces that finding, as many cities have adopted the baldcypress as a selection for urban planting locations that will accommodate the tree’s mature size.

Baldcypress as a street tree in New Orleans, LA. (note this tree has been topped and is growing in a 3×3 cut-out and seems to be doing quite well) Photo by Tree Link editor Ben Thompson.

Dimensions: The baldcypress is a large tree, maturing to heights of 60-80′ tall and having a crown spread of 25-35′ wide, with a swooping, tapered buttress at the base of the trunk.

Canopy: As a young to middle-aged tree, the canopy is fairly symmetrical with an upright, pyramidal habit. The canopy may eventually broaden into an irregular sphere in older specimens.

Bark: The tree has a distinctive thin, fibrous bark that ranges from red-brown to light gray in color depending on environmental conditions and exposure.

Cones: The cones are small and spherical and persist on the tree for a season or so.

Needles: The tree’s needles are a light green color, creating a dappled effect as light filters through the canopy.

Seasons: Fall color varies from a dusky yellow to bright copper or even deep crimson.

Baldcypress is a perfect choice when you would like the growth form and grace of an evergreen tree and all the benefits of a deciduous shade tree; despite its size, the baldcypress brings an airy, delicate texture to the landscape. The fine needles disperse rather readily by wind and water, and blend into grassy landscapes. As another incentive to try this tree, it is largely pest and disease-free, especially outside its native range.

Baldcypress as appears on WSU Clark County Extension webpage for PNW Plants

A real utility of the baldcypress may be as a street tree where latent heat stored in surrounding hardscape raises the local temperature to create a warm microclimate. Some of this tree’s deciduous conifer cousins, such as western larch, are definitely not in the running for street tree planting. Western larch, while native, is a very large tree that grows better in forested environments and is a rare find in the nursery trade. The dawn redwood, on the other hand, has a more symmetrical and reliable growth form than either the larch or the baldcypress, but its size at maturity dwarfs the baldcypress, making it an inappropriate selection for most street tree installations.

The baldcypress is under-planted in Washington State, which makes it a sturdy and fascinating choice that adds diversity, character, and flair to your city’s treescape. The baldcypress, y’all plant one now, y’hear?!