On Gardening

Bald cypress tree dazzles in fall, resembles statuary in winter

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceNovember 23, 2012 

Three bald cypress trees outside my office window appear on fire with a blaze of red. Ever since my first trip to the Frio River in Texas, I have been completely sold on this dazzling tree. Along the Frio, they give a sense of having been there since Texas history began.

After more than a dozen years, they are among the most picturesque in the landscape at the Columbus (Ga.) Botanical Garden. Though the cypress is not evergreen, ours are part of a great conifer display featuring the evergreen Japanese cryptomeria and the dawn redwood, which was once thought extinct.

Down below, close to the buttressing trunk, is another dazzling show on the forest floor. Lacy, fern-like leaves that have dropped yield a carpet of red, with the mysterious cypress knees emerging all around. All who see it try to capture it with the lens of a camera.

The opposite color of this fiery red fall color is green and the leaves of adjacent sweet bay magnolias prove to be a perfect foil.

Many of you may think Texas or Florida when it comes to the bald cypress, known botanically as Taxodium distichum. Incredibly, it has a huge native range of 21 states, as far north as Syracuse, N.Y. Don’t think of it as a swampy trash tree either, because it isn’t. It is a superior landscape tree that will grow on almost any soil. It commonly reaches 50 to 70 feet high and 20 to 30 feet wide.

The foliage is gorgeous, turning from green to a fiery orange in the fall. The bark is an attractive reddish-brown and is especially noteworthy when it reaches a stage of buttressing, when the trunk widens at the bottom, making it appear more stately. The seeds feed several species of birds, including wild ducks.

The cypress knees, which people see in the swamps, are much more prominent in the presence of really moist conditions. (I like the knees almost as much as the tree.)

Bald cypress trees almost always are sold generically but one variety that is simply incredible is called Sentinel. These tall trees were narrower or more conical in shape. Even in the winter they stood out in the garden like massive pieces of fine statuary.

When you buy yours and you are ready to plant, dig the hole two to three times as wide as the root ball, but no deeper. Form a berm around the root zone that is large enough to hold five gallons of water. This comes in handy when watering. The berm can be removed in the second year. When you are ready for a tree, why not consider one of the prettiest natives in the U.S., the bald cypress?

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