Barry Fugatt: Cypress offers a wide appeal
BY BARRY FUGATT Garden World
Saturday, January 26, 2013
1/26/13 at 4:58 AM
Towering, moss-draped bald cypress, some 100 feet tall, line the banks of a south Louisiana bayou near my boyhood home. Early settlers named the picturesque water way Contraband Bayou, believing that the notorious pirate John Lafitte used the dark, meandering bayou as safe haven after raiding ships in the Gulf of Mexico.
The old bayou was the best playground a boy ever had. Friends and I spent countless hours paddling leaky, flat-bottom pirogue canoes along the bayou's snake- and gator-infested banks looking for pirate treasure. We never found it. But we found lots of adventure beneath the massive cypress trees.
One might assume that bald cypress, the official state tree of Louisiana, would thrive only in the Deep South. That's not the case, however. It thrives as far north as Minnesota. And it certainly thrives in Oklahoma.
Bald cypress is unique in lots of ways. For starters, it's a deciduous conifer. Most conifers - pine, redwood, spruce, etc. - are evergreens. Bald cypress, on the other hand, turns rich chocolate brown in early November and sheds all of its foliage.
Bald cypress surprises in other ways. This remarkable conifer grows equally well in standing water or dry land. On a watery site, it produces the peculiar growth called cypress knees. These dense, woody projections may rise 3 to 4 feet in the air. The knees don't, as many people suppose, provide oxygen to the roots. Their role is to act as stabilizing buttresses for such a massive tree growing in wet, unstable soil. And they work really well.
Typically, pines and most other trees are laid flat in the wake of a powerful Gulf hurricane. Not cypress. Often, it alone is left standing after a mighty blow from the Gulf.
Cypress wood also is beautiful and fascinating. It's often referred to as "wood eternal" due to its remarkable density and resistance to decay.
Early loggers soon learned that bald cypress logs were "sinkers." When newly harvested logs rolled from a transport barge, they sank and embedded themselves in mud in the bottom of a lake or bayou. In this oxygen-starved environment, cypress logs remain relatively unchanged for centuries. These valuable logs are now being reclaimed from southern riverbeds and used for fine cabinetry.
Clearly, bald cypress is a top-performing tree for urban landscapes. It's virtually indestructible. Insects, diseases and bad weather rarely lay claim to a bald cypress. And it's one of the longest-lived trees you can plant, capable of living for centuries. The beautiful specimens growing along Contraband Bayou today look as young and fit as when I played beneath then as a boy. I wish I could say the same.
Local nurseries will have lots of bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, for sale in the spring. Seedling grown trees work fine in a home landscape. But check out the newer bald cypress cultivars. Shawnee Brave has an excellent pyramidal form, Falling Waters has a graceful arching (weeping) form, and Lindsey's Skyward has an interesting, narrow form, growing only 6 feet wide and 20 feet tall.
And don't worry about a yard full of cypress knees. They form only in water or in saturated ground. They rarely appear on reasonably well-drained sites.
Original Print Headline: Cypress offers a wide appeal
Barry Fugatt is director of horticulture at the Tulsa Garden Center/Linnaeus Teaching Garden. He can be reached at 918-746-5125 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bald cypress trees grow in Contraband Bayou in southern Louisiana. The trees flourish in Oklahoma, as well, but they won't develop the large knees that help support the cypress when it's growing in water. BARRY FUGATT/Courtesy