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5-15-99 10-1-99


Bald Cypress - Taxodium distichum


The bald cypress is hardy to USDA Zone 4. The range of the bald cypress includes southern Delaware to south Florida, west to Texas and north to southeast Oklahoma, southwest Indiana, and southern Illinois. There are trees 800 to 1000 years old in the Cache River basin in Illinois. Bald cypress has been planted far north of its natural range. There are specimens in Minnesota, Southern Canada, and some 75-year-old trees in New York.

The bald cypress prefers very wet, swampy soils. Riverbanks, lake floodplains, wet depressions. They often grow in pure, almost circular, stands; viewed on the horizon, these stands have a peculiar dome shape, with shorter, almost stunted trees growing around the edges and trees gradually growing taller toward the center. As a landscape tree it grows well in relatively dry soils.

The leaves of the bald cypress are tiny needles, grown in 2 rows along slender greenish twigs:

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It is deciduous, although the dried, brown leaves often cling to the tree well into the winter. [Ed. note: taxodium, larix (larch), and metasequoia (dawn redwood) are the only deciduous conifers to the best of my knowledge]

Close relatives include Pond Cypress (T. distichum nutans, though some authorities give the pond cypress its own species, T. ascendans). T. distichum is the tree most commonly seen and found in nurseries -- and the one with the more northern range. Photo 113 in Simon & Schuster's Guide to Bonsai is of a pond cypress, I believe. It also is a nicely done bonsai.

T. mucronatum, the Montezuma bald cypress, grows in extreme south Texas and in Mexico. It is all but evergreen. Habitats and preferences reportedly are as for T. distichum. I have no experience with this tree.

Repotting: Potting and root pruning should be done in spring, just as little green nubs are showing up on the branches and trunk. If the tree is kept in standing water (see below) root pruning is advised every year -- every 2 years at least. In N. Florida, roots have grown 3 feet in a single year (all in a shallow 12-inch diameter pot).

A heavy soil is best. I use a compact mushroom compost. If the tree is not kept in water, a heavy soil is a must since it needs to retain as much moisture as possible. You cannot rot cypress roots! David Boland recently recommended to the group, and I agree, that soil mix for bald cypress is best based on a silt soil with water retention factors of 60% to 75%.

Since bald cypress' preferred habitat is low, swampy terrain, flat shallow, earth-colored pots are recommended. The outside glaze should be a dull earth-tone. Smooth surfaces are recommended for pots that are kept in water, since it is easier to clean the pot when you bring the tree inside for a brief display.

Pruning and wiring: The bald cypress lends itself to formal upright, informal upright, slanting, literati, twin-trunk and group styles.

In nature, a mature bald cypress growing in the open will have a long, limbless trunk, capped with a cluster of horizontal-to-drooping limbs and a very flat top.

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The formal upright probably should take this shape. A younger tree in nature will have limbs growing lower on the trunk, and most will be angling upward. The informal upright might consider this aspect.

In far south Florida, Everglades cypress (most of them "pond cypress") are shorter, and more scraggly; the literati style would suite these admirably. Branches tend to grow the entire length of the trunk -- starting almost at the ground.

Groups of more than 5 or 7 trees might want to emulate the cypress dome habitat that is so natural to them in the Southeast.

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That's not a good representation, but the idea is a rounded dome rising out of a flat horizon. The trees along the edges are usually squat and with many leafless branches. The ones toward the center are the flat-topped mature trees that are so typical of the cypress.

These trees are fast growing, and wires will damage the bark if they are not watched closely. I use aluminum electrical wire that has not had the rubber insulation stripped from it.

I prefer to tie branches down. I use a soft raffia twine, tied near the end of the branch I want to pull down, then tie the other end to the base of the tree trunk, to the pot, or to something else (sometimes the base of the branch immediately below).

If the branch I want to pull down is thick, I will make a V-shaped incision at the underside of the limb where it joins the trunk. The V will close when I pull the branch down, and the wound soon knits.

Shape the foliage by pinching back of new growth. Let a branch grow for a season if you want to thicken it, then cut it back the following spring. New growth will sprout at the site of your most recent pruning. Twigs sprout at sharp, acute angles, so it is not difficult to develop a gnarled-looking branch (e.g. /\/\/\/\/\/). I prune throughout the summer, then shape in the fall just before dormancy.

Leaves tend to sprout right out from the trunk. Some will develop into a branch if you let them; others are just leaves. In most cases, these should be plucked off.

Developing cypress "knees." There's still considerable debate over what these knees are "for" in nature, but they are a distinctive feature of bald cypress. You should try to develop at least one "knee" in your mature trees.

They are easily developed by going up to 3 years without repotting or root pruning. By then, roots will be jammed into the pot; many will have bent almost double. If you carefully bring one of these doubled bends (one that occurs quite near the base of the tree, or can be brought in closer) to the surface and let it protrude through the moss cover, you will have what is to all intents a knee. These should thicken and develop well over subsequent years.

Feeding and watering: Use a fertilizer that is well balanced; I use Peters 10-10-10 at about full strength. Weekly in spring and early summer, every 2 weeks in late summer and fall until leaves start to turn brown. None over winter.

Based on David's comment -- Bear in mind that this method of cultivation plays havoc with cation levels of nitrogen, ergo nitrogen is secondary in importance to phosphorus -- a 10-15-10 fertilizer might be more appropriate.

Watering must be done daily, year round, in the south. I recommend that, especially in the south, the pots be kept submerged almost to the rim during the summer. I keep small pots in plastic trays sold by local nurseries. Larger pots are kept in a 14" x 24" x 2" aluminum cake pan. (Note: empty the water at least every other day to reduce the mosquito problem.)

Trees should be maintained in running water; establishment is in stagnant water, after which running water is slowly introduced (eg. Washington Arboretum). This certainly would help eliminate the mosquito problem, but since the tree's natural habitat is stagnant, swampy water, I see no real reason for concern (and have seen no problems with my own trees, grown in still water over 20 years. I do change the water completely after 2 days, which may approximate the running water scenario). I also see no problem doing it that way if you have the setup.

Notes:

Propagation: Cuttings or air layer are easiest. I have had best luck with cuttings. Nurseries in the S.E. generally carry T. distichum in 1- 5- and 10- gallon sizes.