Scientific Name: Taxodium distichum
Description: Although many conifers are evergreen, bald cypress trees are deciduous conifers that shed their needle-like leaves in the fall. In fact, they get the name “bald” cypress because they drop their leaves so early in the season. Their fall colors are tan, cinnamon, and fiery orange. The bark is brown or gray with a stringy texture. Young trees have pyramidal (pyramid-shaped) crowns, but these even off to a columnar shape in adulthood. Branches are often draped with clumps of Spanish moss. The feature that bald cypresses are really known for, though, is their “knees.” These aren’t knees like ours, but rather they are a special kind of root. The technical term for the knees is “pneumatophore,” which means “air bearing.” Pneumatophores grow from horizontal roots just below the surface and protrude upward from the ground or water. Since bald cypresses often grow in swampy conditions, it’s thought that the pneumatophores function to transport air to drowned roots underground. They also might help to anchor the tree.
Size: Growing up to 120 feet tall with a trunk 3 to 6 feet in diameter, bald cypresses are frequently referred to as giants! They can’t quite compare to their redwood relatives, though, which reach over 300 feet in height!
Typical Lifespan: Bald cypresses are slow-growing, long-lived trees that regularly reach up to 600 years in age.
Habitat: Bald cypresses are well-adapted to wet conditions along riverbanks and swamps. They are also found in dry areas and are frequently planted as ornamental trees.
U.S. Range: Bald cypress is a native southeastern species which grows in the Mississippi Valley drainage basin, along the Gulf Coast, and up the coastal plain to the mid-Atlantic states.
Life History and Reproduction: Bald cypress cones don’t actually look like cones at all! Their cone structure is round and about one inch in diameter. When cones appear in autumn, they are tough and green, but they become woody as the season progresses. Each cone is made of a number of scales, and each scale is associated with two triangular seeds. Seeds are eaten by wild turkey, wood ducks, evening grosbeak, water birds, and squirrels. Those seeds that escape predation are dispersed by floodwaters.
Fun Fact: Bald cypress is the state tree of Louisiana.
Conservation Status: Bald cypress trees are valued for the rot-resistant heartwood of mature trees, and so they have been widely used to make fence posts, doors, flooring, caskets, cabinetry, boats, etc. However, they are not harvested for timber as much anymore because they are slow-growing and there aren’t as many of them left. Also, they usually grow in wetlands, which causes loggers much difficulty. Bald cypresses have very important roles in the wild. Since they tend to grow along rivers and in wetlands, they are excellent at soaking up floodwaters and preventing erosion. They also trap pollutants and prevent them from spreading. Frogs, toads, and salamanders use bald cypress swamps as breeding grounds. Wood ducks nest in hollow trunks, catfish spawn in the submerged hollow logs, and raptors like bald eagles nest in the treetops.
The United States National Arboretum
Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Texas Parks & Wildlife
USDA NRCS Plant Guide
U.S. Forest Service Fire Effects Information System
U.S. Forest Service Silvics of North America
University of Florida