The name “Bald cypress” comes from their historical tendency to be among the first trees in the South to lose their leaves in the fall, hence being “bald” before many other trees. They are also the last to bud in the spring, hence being “bald” for longer than many other trees as well! This is particularly unusual when considering that most conifers are evergreen, while bald cypresses are therefore deciduous.
Their other nicknames come from the other characteristics of the tree. The term “Taxodium” is Greek for “yew-like,” a group of trees prized for their hardwood. Cypress is also known colloquially as the “wood eternal,” because its particular kind of hardwood is particularly resistant to decay. Other nicknames include “Gulf Cypress” because of its location along the Gulf Coast, “Red Cypress,” “Yellow Cyprus,” “White Cyprus,” “Swamp Cypress” because of its preferred location in swampy floodplain regions, and “Southern Cypress” because of its distribution across the American south-east.
They are useful for habitat creation for many species. The seeds are eaten by squirrels, wood ducks, evening grosbeaks, and wild turkeys. The characteristic “knees” of the bald cypress, when they begin to rot, as used as nesting cavities by warblers. Bald eagles and osprey nest in their branches, and catfish will spawn beneath the logs when submerged.
For humans, they are most useful in nature as a means of trapping sediment, soaking up floodwaters and slowing their onset, as well as trapping pollutants and preventing them from spreading. This is in part due to their preferred location - in the swampy, wet “floodplain” regions of nearby rivers and lakes.
Outside of their presence in nature, they are used often in construction because of their aforementioned hardwood status and resistance to decay. They were therefore used in modern times in heavy construction that had to withstand the forces of nature – such as bridges, warehouses, docks, and bridges. In previous centuries, the indigenous Seminoles used it for making canoes, houses, and other ceremonial objects; the indigenous Choctaw used the bark of the tree for rope and string.
Despite its historical use in construction, they are no longer harvested for their timber because they are slow-growing and previous logging has drastically reduced their numbers. Their natural locations in wetlands also make logging more difficult.
Fun Fact: The bald cypress is the state tree of Louisiana!
Author Fun Fact: During the childhood of one of the authors of this page, who hails from North Carolina, this tree was synonymous with the northeastern part of the state, known as the Great Dismal Swamp. The pneumatophore knees of the tree give the area a particularly swampy and ethereal look, in part leading to the “Dismal” part of the “Dismal Swamp” name.