(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 27, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
It could have been about twenty years ago that I got a wild notion to plant a tree on the east end of my house. Nothing grew well there, neither flowers nor grass, nor even a weed, so I decided I needed a tree.
I went to a small local tree farm and asked if I might look around for the perfect tree for the barren end of my house. The very nice owner gave me the run of the place and I spent several hours eyeing what he had to offer. Flowering trees were high on my list, but I knew they didn’t stand a chance if even weeds failed to grow in that area. Finally, it was nearing closing time, and the owner wandered over my way.
I told him I was having trouble making a decision, and he knew me pretty well anyway, so that was not surprising to him. But he listened to me while I explained to him that I wanted a tree to grow in a spot where nothing else would grow. And I wanted it to be a special tree, something a little different, since I already had maples and oaks and crabapples, not to mention the ash, river birch, raintree, redbud, smoke tree, Japanese maples and magnolia; all on less than an acre of land.
He stood quietly as if thinking, and I turned to leave, thinking there was no answer for the barren spot where nothing would grow. But he suddenly said: “Bald cypress, you need a bald cypress.”
“Cypress,” I asked, “don’t cypress trees grow near water, I don’t live anywhere near water? And what on earth is a bald cypress?”
“Well, of course they do,” he said, “but you have a natural spring up on the hill behind your house, and I suspect it flows underground right down beside the east end. Might be why you have trouble with things growing there. Is it a little swampy in early spring?"
Well, now that I thought of it, it was swampy in early spring, and often in fall and winter, too, so I agreed with him that it was. He went on to tell me that my property at one time in the early days of my town was all farmland, and the natural spring source was just at the back edge of my property line, just uphill from my barren spot. He also explained to me what a bald cypress was.
So I looked around his lot of trees and he pointed me in the direction of the bald cypress. You should know by now that I have a soft heart for trees and animals, so I knelt in the dirt to look at a small crooked stick that had seen better days.
“Oh no,” he said, “that one looks to have been trampled, how about this one,” and he pointed to a larger more robust seedling a few feet away.
“Oh but I like this little guy,” I said, “He looks as if he needs a home.”
“Won’t grow,” said my tree guy, “but you can try it if you like, and you can have it for fifty cents.”
“Sold,” said I, and walked away with my crooked little stick that was almost 12 inches tall.
Today my tiny crooked stick is about 25 or 30 feet tall, having lost about 10 feet of its top to the ice storm last winter. It is very likely the prettiest tree fall has to offer, and one of the strongest trees in my yard. It absolutely thrived in the wet soil on the east end of my house
Taxodium distichum is a fairly medium sized tree with gray brown to red brown bark. The feathery leaves are borne on deciduous branchlets that are spirally arranged on the stem. Unlike most other species in the family Cupressaceae, it is deciduous, losing the leaves in the winter months, hence the name ‘bald’. The seed cones are green, maturing grayish brown. They are also scaly, and the number of seeds per cone ranges from twenty to perhaps forty. The bald cypress seeds are the largest of the cypress family.
The native range extends from Delaware Bay south to Florida and west to Texas and southeast Oklahoma, then up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers north to southern Illinois and Indiana. Ancient bald cypress forests, with some trees more than 1,200 years old, once dominated swamps in the southeast U.S.
Although the bald cypress grows best in warm climates, the natural northern limit of the species is not due to a lack of cold tolerance. Further north, regeneration is prevented by ice damage to seedlings. Larger trees are able to tolerate much lower temperatures and lower humidities. It does not grow in saline coastal waters.
The seeds are dispersed by water, they float and move during flooding. They can also be dispersed by wildlife. I watch the squirrels eat the seeds from my tree, but they often drop scales from them as they do, thus seedlings can appear in their wake during the next growing season.
But you know, I keep waiting for cypress knees to appear. They are the little knobby growths that pop up around the base of the trunk. It hasn’t happened yet, but every time I have a wet spring or summer, I keep expecting to see them. Most experts tell me they are formed to act as buttresss in soil that is in a flood plain. I am not in a flood plain, so I guess my bald cypress doesn’t need that support. Even so, I keep watching for them to appear.
It is a very popular ornamental tree with its light feathery foliage and orangey brown fall color. Bald cypress swamps are some of the world’s most productive ectosystems, too. Its wood has long been valued for its water resistance, and in some places it is called ‘wood eternal’. Prehistoric wood is found sometimes in swamps in New Jersey and other New England areas, although it is more common in the southeast. It is highly prized among artists for wood carvings.
It was designated the official state tree of Louisiana in 1963, and some consider it to be a symbol of the southern swamps.
I think I made a wise decision when I brought that tiny fifty cent seedling home with me. It grew quickly and is one of my favorites. I still take a stroll every morning and check around its base to see if knees are forming. I would like to see them, but doubt if it will happen. Maybe that’s a good thing, because if they formed, it would mean the spring uphill from my house has sprung to flood proportions. A flood probably would not be a good thing.
This article was written with some fact verification from Wikipedia.
The photographs are all my own.