1. By: Russell Stafford

    Bald cypress “knees” are an interesting characteristic of mature specimens planted in moist soils.

    Even if you’ve never been to the Southeast U.S., you’re probably familiar with one of its signature plant communities: the bald cypress swamp. Nothing looks more “Deep South” than a flooded grove of buttress-trunked Taxodium distichum draped with Spanish moss. It might surprise you then to learn that bald cypress makes an excellent (and hardy) subject for all sorts of garden situations in regions as cold as USDA Hardiness Zone (minus 10 to minus 20 F).

    Bald Cypress Landscape Needs

     

    Wild-type bald cypress develop wider, pyramidal crowns with age. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Whether your landscape is wet or dry, sandy or clayey, large or small, sunny or lightly shaded, your probably have a place for one of the many forms of this picturesque deciduous conifer – minus the Spanish moss. Best growth occurs in full sun and relatively porous, humus-rich soil, so you might want to work some Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost into the planting area if it’s excessively heavy or sandy. To take the pampering to an even higher level, and mulch your bald cypress annually with an inch or two of compost.

    A full-sized bald cypress needs ample garden space – something that might not be apparent from the deceptively slender young specimens at the nursery. Its form begins to fill out in its teens and twenties, as its previously rapid vertical growth slows and its lower reaches broaden. The result at maturity is a classic coniferous pyramid, 50 or 60 feet tall and half as wide. It subjected to wet soils, older specimens produce knobby “knees” from the roots that provide landscape interest.

    Bald cypresses of whatever age and size produce feathery clusters of short, flat needles that flush bright green in late spring, deepen to rich green in summer, and turn bronzy-orange in fall. Curious spherical cones with wrinkled surfaces develop in summer, morphing from green to brown as they mature. After leaf fall, bald cypress continues to provide interest with its symmetrical silhouette, rusty-brown bark, and persistent cones.

    Bald Cypress Varieties

    Shawnee Brave is a columnar variety suited for spacious landscapes. (Image by Crusier)

    If you don’t have acreage but want to incorporate this outstanding four-season ornamental into your garden, Taxodium distichum comes in numerous shapes and sizes that are an easier fit than the full-sized edition.

    For gardens that can accommodate the full height but not the full breadth of a standard-issue bald cypress, there’s ‘Shawnee Brave’. This 60-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide cultivar fits more neatly into narrow garden niches.

    The cultivar ‘Skyward’ is compact in both width and height, eventually forming a 20-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide spire. It works well as an accent or allee tree for smaller gardens.

    Bald cypress also comes in cascading, weeping forms – quite apropos for a species that’s associated with water. They include ‘Falling Waters’, with drooping branches dangling from an upright 20-foot tall trunk in “Cousin It” fashion. In contrast, ‘Cascade Falls’ snakes along the ground as a prostrate ground cover unless its trunk is either staked upright or grafted onto a straight trunk.

    The round cones of bald cypress add winter interest. (Image by Russell Stafford)

    Dwarf selections of bald cypress include ‘Peve Minaret’, which perfectly miniaturizes the form of the full-sized version. Its sister cultivar ‘Peve Yellow’ is of similar size (and name), differing in its eye-catching pale yellow foliage. Both ‘Peve’ cultivars grow approximately 8-feet tall and 4-feet wide in 10 years – ideal for use in a mixed border or large rock garden.

    Some miniature cultivars go their own way when it comes to form. The branches of ‘Cody’s Feathers’ are anything but symmetrical, resulting in an endearingly shaggy, rounded, 6-foot shrub that looks like it had an extremely bad hair day. It’s a prolific cone-bearer, which amplifies the effect.

    Shaggy and rounded is also the general look of ‘Cave Hill’, but in an even smaller size than ‘Cody’s Feathers’ (3-feet tall and wide). It’s also notable for its bright green foliage. This dwarf cultivar is ready-made for small garden niches, such as rock gardens and troughs, as is ‘Secrest’, which sports the shaggy look in a somewhat denser, flatter form. Both are often grown as standards, grafted on a short trunk.

    Dwarf selections may not have the majesty of a Taxodium distichum in its native haunts (which span a surprisingly wide geographic range, from southern Iowa to the upper Mid Atlantic states to Guatemala). But any form of bald cypress that can fit in your garden is worth considering.

    About Russell Stafford


    Hortiholic and plant evangelist Russell Stafford transplanted his first perennial at age 7, and thereby began a lifelong addiction. He is founder, owner, webmaster, nursery manager, propagator, shipping and telemarketing supervisor, data entry specialist, custodian, and all other positions at Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an on-line micronursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. He also works as a plantsman and horticultural consultant specializing in the naturalistic and the obscure, and as a freelance writer and editor. He formerly served as curator and head of horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan; as horticultural program coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation (then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts); and in various other horticultural capacities. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University. He lives, works, and plays with plants in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. Russell is a former editor at www.learn2grow.com and a frequent contributor to gardening magazines including Horticulture and The American Gardener.

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