One tough tree — bald cypress

by Chris Enroth, Horticulture Educator, University of Illinois Extension

Don’t you wish you knew then what you know now? Speaking from experience, when I first began studying plants, people would ask me lots of gardening or landscaping questions. Did I as a first-year student know the answer? No. Did I pretend to know? Yes. It must be human nature as a young adult.

As a fresh-faced Southern Illinois University Carbondale horticulture student, I was asked at a Christmas party by a family friend if I could pick out some plants for screening between two homes. I said yes, thinking surely they wouldn’t call me up in the spring. They did. Have you ever worked on a project where everything went wrong? This was one — except one thing went right, and that was planting a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).

As I fumbled around at the garden center trying to select plants that might work, I came upon a tree that I had heard about in a botany lecture — a needled conifer that wasn’t an evergreen, it was deciduous. I was struck by the fine textured, soft foliage. Even as a young sapling, the woven stringy bark was an admirable feature. We needed something to anchor the end of this landscape screening bed near a pond. The label noted its tolerance to wet conditions. With more confidence than the other plants, I placed the bald cypress on the cart and headed to the site.

I didn’t know how to plant a tree. The ground was like rock, and I had a tiny garden shovel that bent with every pull of soil. Lifting the root ball out of the pot, I squeezed it into the tiny planting hole, shaving off roots to make it fit. We put grass right up to the base of the trunk and walked away.

Most trees would have died. This one did not.

It has been almost 20 years since I installed that landscape screen. Rest assured the other plants are long dead. However, although the bald cypress struggled to establish at first, it is now a beautiful specimen of a tree.

At the base of the trunk, it developed the characteristic buttress, widening dramatically at the soil line. The canopy has grown tall holding to a pyramidal shape as it lazily casts its lower branches to touch the water’s surface.

Provided this bald cypress can steer clear of hazards (namely humans), it will grow up to 70 feet tall and nearly 50 feet wide. State champion bald cypress have been measured up to 125 feet tall and some are estimated to have celebrated their 1,000th birthday. A typical bald cypress can live 400 to 600 years.

The native range of bald cypress just kisses the tip of Southern Illinois. A great area to view these trees growing naturally is in the Cache River Natural Area near Belknap. Yet, you can find bald cypress planted for its ornamental appeal throughout Illinois. From wet to dry soils, this tree does surprisingly well in most environments and is hardy to zone 4. The fall color ranges from rust orange to brown and leaf cleanup is a breeze.

I have made mistakes when growing plants, but I know one good decision was planting a bald cypress. I think I may plant more, but this time in a properly dug hole.

Good Growing Fact of the Week: When growing in swampy areas, bald cypress sends up pneumatophores, or “knees,” from the root system. The knees were thought to help the roots breathe and stabilize the tree. Recent studies show neither to be the case. Storage of starch is thought to be the major function of bald cypress knees for future energy use.

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