Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Cypress - An Ideal Choice for Wet Sites
Cypress trees have ruled their watery domain as the lords of southern swamps, sloughs and other wetland areas for millions of years. Cypress is a conifer and is related to it's long lived relatives the famed redwoods and sequoias of California.. Unlike other conifers, cypress tress are deciduous and shed their leaves in fall. Two races of cypress are recognized in Florida, the bald-cypress (Taxodium distichum var. distichum) and the pond-cypress (Taxodium distichum var. nutans). Both species share a number of characteristics which some times make identification tricky. The bald-cypress is generally much larger and is more widely distributed than the pond-cypress. Pond-cypress needles tend to be held more closely to the twig than bald-cypress, whose needles stand at nearly right angles to the twig. In addition, pond-cypress thrives characteristic stands variously called domes or strands, in poorly drained nutrient poor soils around ponds or natural depressions while bald-cypress is typically found on nutrient rich seasonally flooded sites.
These mossy monarchs are well known for their fluted base or buttress, which can range in form from conical to bell-bottomed or bottle-shaped. The most distinctive characteristic of cypress tress is their unique root system. On wetter sites, the shallow and widespread root systems give rise to the peculiar aboveground conical structures known as "knees." These "knees" can take on an astonishing variety of forms and even form the basis for the well known local attraction - Tom Gaskin's Cypress Museum in nearby Palmdale. The size of the knees and the width of the buttress on an individual tree is directly related to water level. The function of cypress knees is some what mysterious. They were thought to aid the roots in gas exchange under flooded conditions but removal of the knees seems to have no ill effect on the tree.
Feathery light green needles which turn an attractive red brown before they drop in the late fall and coarse grey bark contribute to make the cypress an appealing tree for landscape use. While cypress trees are an obvious choice for wetter sites and aquascaping around water features, bald-cypress is tolerant of drier upland sites and is frequently used in parks and residential settings as a shade tree. As an ornamental specimen, the bald-cypress offers a unique appearance, symmetrical shape, fairly rapid growth rate and excellent disease resistance.
Bald-cypress matures at 100-120 feet or more in height and may have a trunk of 3-5 in diameter so that site selection is important to assure that the seedling planted today has plenty of room to reach it's full potential. Both species tolerate a wide range of soil types and require little fertility making them ideal for low maintenance landscapes. Trees should be planted in full sunlight for best growth although they will perform well under high drifting shade. Containerized plants are widely available in area nurseries. Seeds gathered from under cypress trees can be germinated with fairly good success by the enterprising gardener and will produce a nice size tree for planting into the landscape in a few years.
Cypress suffers from few pest and disease problems. The only disease of any consequence is a fungal pathogen that causes a condition known as pecky heartwood rot. Wood infected by this fungus looks like it has been attacked by wood boring insects but it retains it's strength and durability. The effect on cypress lumber is considered rustic when used as interior paneling and is referred to as pecky cypress. Bald-cypress, in particular, may be defoliated by the a leaf roller, which can reduce tree vigor and growth rate. Control may be warranted on smaller landscape specimens but is generally not practical on larger trees.
Cypress trees are becoming more popular as folks discover there versatility as a landscape tree. In addition to their multi-faceted appeal and contribution to the Florida-look in the landscape, cypresses provide important habitats for many other species including a number of colorful ephiphytes (air plants) such as bromeliads, orchids and ferns which grow on their trunks and branches. Bald-cypress are also favored nesting places of many of our larger wading birds and raptors. Go native and help preserve a bit of our local heritage. Good luck and good gardening.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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