Cypress Trees as Landscape Trees by PJ LaRue Smith
Stately and intriguing, the mature Bald and Montezuma Cypress trees leave one with a sense of awe and curiosity. While these two trees are very similar to one another in general appearance, there are significant differences that bear mentioning, especially if one is planning to add either to their landscape.
More commonly seen (in this area of Texas) is the Bald Cypress (Taxiodium distichum). Native to the southern part of the US, the Bald Cypress is unlike other members of the cypress (Cupressaceae, a type of conifer) family, in that it is deciduous (looses its leaves) during the winter. This tree is not without winter interest, though, as the rust-brown leaves and round seed pods remain on the tree throughout much of the season. Naturally growing in wet, swampy areas, the Bald Cypress thrives in areas where most others do not, making this tree an excellent choice for a low, wet area of the landscape, and alongside a pond or stream. But the Bald Cypress does not have to be planted in a wet area, it can grow quite happily in most areas of a landscape with little difficulty. Chlorosis can be a problem in soils with a high pH, so test the planting site if this may be of concern. Growing to a height of 50 to 70 feet, with a 30 foot spread, the Bald Cypress is pyramidal in habit, with a heavy straight trunk, and branches that are distinctly horizontal. The foliage is spirally arranged along the stems and, unlike most conifers, is soft to the touch. New growth in the spring is a very light green, turning to a darker shade of green during the summer. The wood of the Bald Cypress contains chemicals that resist attack by fungi making it desirable for use in exterior trim, boat and ship building, shingles, posts, poles, etc.
The most unique feature of this tree, and one that needs considering before planting, is its “knees” – protuberances that arise from the roots that can get as tall as three feet! While the purpose of these knees has never been scientifically confirmed, the two main suppositions directly relate to the tree’s native habitat – swamps and water courses. The most common reason one will hear is that the knees provide a way for the roots to exchange oxygen and other gases. The second reason is that these knees provide the tree with further structural support in a more vertical manner than the lateral roots do in the wet, loose soil. Whether it is the first or second reason, or even a combination of the two, these knees certainly add a novel look to the landscape around a Bald Cypress tree, being a source of curiosity for both young and old alike. The caveat here, of course, is that running over these knees with a lawn mower will be neither beneficial for the tree, or the machinery. Be sure to locate this tree in an area where the knees will not be a source of aggravation, and both you and the tree will be happy.
Montezuma Cypress (Taxodium mucronatum) trees are native to deep south Texas into Mexico and a close relative of the Bald Cypress. However, there are significant differences between the two species of trees. The Montezuma Cypress (a) is evergreen in its natural range (deciduous north of that range); (b) is not prone to grow “knees”; (c) grows taller and faster than the Bald Cypress; (d) is somewhat cold sensitive; (e) has a broad, spreading crown; and (f) has strong, horizontal branches, but delicate branchlets that droop downward giving the tree a distinctive weeping appearance. It is this “weeping” look that makes this tree very attractive in the landscape, and if grown in a drier site, there should be no “knees” to worry about mowing over.
Both of these trees make wonderful additions to the landscape as long as their location is considered carefully before planting!