Tree of the Month, January 2023

Baldcypress, Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

by Martin (Mort) Schmidt for Simply Living

Baldcypresses in Inniswood Metropark, Columbus. Photo by Mort Schmidt.

Not all conifers are evergreens. We often use the terms interchangeably, but in fact some conifers lose their needles in winter, while some broadleaf trees, such as American Holly (Ilex opaca), keep their leaves in winter. As discussed in the December 2022 Tree of the Month, Eastern White Pine needles live for two years, while some conifer needles live more than thirty. But those needles are replaced on rotation, so that the tree is always green. In contrast, the deciduous conifers lose all of their needles every winter. 

The most common deciduous conifers in Ohio are Dawn Redwood, Baldcypress, and Larch (aka Tamarac). Larch is the only Ohio native, but here it’s mostly limited to northeastern swamps and isn’t very suitable for landscaping. Dawn Redwood is widely planted because it does well in urban settings, but it’s native to China. Baldcypress thrives in permanent standing water, but does not require it, and can grow in a variety of soils, so it also is widely planted in Ohio and elsewhere. It’s indigenous to the southeastern US and the Mississippi Valley, and most range maps indicate that southwestern Indiana is its closest native habitat to Ohio.

Natural range of Taxodium distichum. Figure from US Department of Agriculture Handbook 654, Silvics of North America .

The needles of Taxodium distichum are most distinctive when they’ve fallen off, since most other conifers keep their needles in winter. The flat needles are approximately ⅜ to ¾ inches long, soft, and attached to delicate stems. The stems are attached to the tree’s permanent twigs in an alternate pattern, in which the stems are not directly across from one another. The needles of Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), are similar, but larger, and the twigs are arranged in an opposite pattern, such that the stems are attached directly across from one another. The third deciduous conifer, American Larch (Larix laricina) has whorled needles, in which multiple needles are attached at each point. 

Left to right: Baldcypress, Dawn Redwood, and American Larch needles. Photos by Mort Schmidt. 
Left to right: Alternate, opposite, and whorled needle arrangements. Photos by Mort Schmidt.

In Ohio, Baldcypress typically grows to a height of 80 to 100 feet, with a trunk diameter of 3 feet and a crown width of 30 feet at maturity. Ohio’s champion T. distichum, located in Hamilton County, has a height of 113 feet, a trunk diameter of 5.6 feet, and a crown width of 61 feet. The bases of Baldcypress and Dawn Redwood trunks are distinctively fluted, which provides extra support in wet soils. Cypress “knees” are also associated with Baldcypress and distinguish it from Dawn Redwood. The knees project above water and may (or may not, depending on the source) help the tree respire. 

Fluted trunk and “knees” typical of Baldcypress, Dawes Arboretum. Photos by Mort Schmidt.

Baldcypress can grow not only to an impressive size, but to an impressive age. Valerie Trouet’s Tree Story, The History of the World Written in Rings, tells of one in North Carolina that was 2,624 years old as of 2018. The tree’s long life and rot resistance make it very useful for dendrochronology – the study of history, especially climate, through the investigation of tree rings. 

Baldcypress bark occurs as thin, narrow strips that come loose at the ends. Baldcypress is monoecious and has both male and female flowers on the same tree. Its cones are nearly spherical before opening and are approximately ¾ to 1 inch in diameter. Dawn Redwood cones are smaller and are somewhat oblong, and before opening, more rugged. A good place to see Baldcypress in Central Ohio is at the Dawes Arboretum in Licking County, which has a boardwalk running through a pure stand of cypress. The conifer section of Inniswood Metropark in Franklin County has Baldcypress and Dawn Redwood in close proximity to each other, making it easy to compare them. 

Left – Baldcypress bark. Right – Comparison of Baldcypress cone (left) with Dawn Redwood cone (right). Photos by Mort Schmidt.

Baldcypress lumber is relatively hard for a conifer, with a Janka hardness of 570 lbf, which exceeds that of several common hardwoods, including Tuliptree (aka Yellow Poplar, 540 lbf), Eastern Cottonwood (430 lbf), Basswood (410 lbf), Black Willow (360 lbf), and Yellow Buckeye (350 lbf). The lumber has very good rot-resistance, especially in old-growth trees, making it well-suited for outdoor furniture and construction. Baldcypress wood has a density of 0.51 g/cc Most of the large expanses of old-growth cypress are gone, but the lumber was widely used for interior finishing, boats, shingles, railroad ties, coffins, and cooperage. The fermentation stage of bourbon usually takes place in stainless steel vats, but was traditionally done in vats of cypress. Baldcypress knees are often fashioned into novelties for the tourist trade. 

Noel Kingsbury’s Hidden History of Trees tells of a 4,500 year-old dugout canoe of Baldcypress excavated in North Carolina. The Native American Ethnobotany Database indicates that the Choctaw used the bark of T. distichum for cordage. According to the database, Indians also used the related Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens) to make houses, spoons, bowls, dolls, and drums. Presumably, they used Baldcypress in the similar ways. Baldcypress is the State Tree of Louisiana, in which lives the National Champion Taxodium distichum

Laura Martin’s The Folklore of Trees and Shrubs says that after American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), Baldcypress has undergone more reduction in population than any other American native tree, and that most of the available cypress lumber is Pond Cypress. We can only hope that tree farming or other sustainable practices will allow these majestic trees to continue. 

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