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Biodiversity Blog

 

Trees of BFL: Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)

by Nicole Elmer and George Yatskievych (Botanist, Curator: Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center)

BaldCypress

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a deciduous conifer (cone bearing) in the family Cupressaceae. The genus consists of very distinctive trees. They can get very tall, growing up to 120 feet, with massive, lobed and fluted trunks. Although they can tolerate different soil types in cultivation, in nature they are abundant in wet swampy soils. Roots submerged in water often grow “knees” that appear above the water surface. Their leaves are soft and arranged in a feathery pattern on twigs, and have a whitish underside. 

They are called “bald” as they are one of the first trees to shed their leaves and the last to grow new ones in the spring.

There is a debate among botanists as to how many species of bald cypress grow in Texas. Although most botanists consider a single species to grow in the Lone Star State, others argue that some populations (especially along the lower stretches of the Rio Grande) in which “knees” are produced uncommonly and the foliage tends to be incompletely deciduous are instead Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum). Montezuma cypress is widespread in Mexico and northern Central America.

These trees are homes for many different animals. The sturdy, spreading branches are often sites for rookeries of herons, egrets, and other large birds of wet environments. Wood ducks, grosbeak, wild turkey all eat the seeds that are shed when the female cones fall apart. It also is the larval host of the Baldcypress sphinx moth (Isoparce cupressi).

The range of the species is through the Southeastern states of the US and locally northward along major rivers into the Lower Midwest, but Central Texas includes the western portion of the native range. However, the species is widely planted to the north of its natural distribution and occasionally escapes.

These trees can live to be very old. The oldest specimen is in North Carolina, and is over 2600 years old, making it one of the oldest living trees in North America. In 2012, scuba divers discovered the remains of a cypress forest underwater off the coast of Alabama. The forest was submerged in 60 feet of water. The trees could not be dated using radiocarbon methods, which indicates these trees are more than 50,000 years old. This startling discovery is evidence that during the last Ice Age, sea levels were lower when much more water was trapped in glacial ice, and the land where these trees flourished was then a coastal forest. In contrast, present-day melting of ice as a result of global climate change is raising sea levels and beginning to drown coastal areas worldwide.

Native Americans used cypress for construction of their homes, canoes, drums, and coffins. It’s called “the wood eternal” because its heartwood is resistant to decay. The cypress was designated as the official state tree of Louisiana in 1963, and many see it as a symbol of Deep South swamps. 

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