Bald Cypress

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
The Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), also known as the southern cypress, is a deciduous conifer in the family Cupressaceae that grows on saturated and seasonally inundated soils in the lowlands of the Southeastern and Gulf Coastal Plains of the United States. Because of its high presence in the south, it is the official state tree of Louisiana. The bald cypress is a large slow-growing and long-lived tree typically reaching heights of 30–35 m (100–120 ft) and a trunk diameter of 1–2 m (3–6 ft). The bark is gray-brown to red-brown, thin and fibrous with a stringy texture, having a vertically interwoven pattern of shallow ridges and narrow furrows. The leaves are alternate and linear, with flat blades borne on the twig that are spirally arranged on the stem, but twisted at the base to lie in two horizontal ranks, 1–2 cm long and 1–2 mm broad. The main trunks are surrounded by cypress knees, which come up from the surface at a distance from the trunk. Baldy cypress is monoecious. This species is a popular ornamental tree, grown for its light, feathery foliage and orange-brown to dull red fall color.
Collected Data
Date of tree entry: 
21.50 m
Diameter at breast height: 
0.77 m

The bark is gray-brown to red-brown, thin and fibrous with a stringy texture. It has a vertically interwoven pattern of shallow ridges and narrow furrows.
Twigs & branches
The terminal twigs are green during the flowering season and become reddish-brown during the winter when its leaves are shed, as seen in the photo here.
Due to the bald cypress's deciduous phenology which leads to its "baldness" for much of the year, images of the leaves are provided by:
Reproductive Structures
The bald cypress is bare ("bald"!) for much of the traditional academic year, so we unfortunately have not seen its flowering period in-person. Image of cones from a tree in Louisiana is provided by Wikimedia Commons.
Because the bald cypress is a gymnosperm, it is not fruit-bearing.
  • Bald cypress at local site in March
Natural range of distribution: 
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. In the US, 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. These sites are characterized by frequent, prolonged flooding. Its range extends westward into Texas and northward into Illinois and Indiana. Inland, Bald cypress grows along the many streams of the middle and upper coastal plains. Humid, moist subhumid, and dry subhumid climatic types occur within the range of Bald cypress. They can grow across a wide climatic range, but they grow best in warm climates. For example, bald cypress grows virtually 365 days a year in southern Florida.
Origin, history, and uses: 

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.

Bald cypresses are slow-growing, long-lived, hardwood trees that can regularly reach up to 600 years in age! Bald cypresses are monoecious gymnosperms and follow the same reproductive patterns as other gymnosperms. In gymnosperms, a sporophyte generates cones containing male and female gametophytes. Female cones are larger than male cones and are located higher up in the tree. A male cone contains microsporophylls where the male gametophytes (pollen) are produced and are later carried by wind to female gametophytes. The megaspore mother cell in the female cone divides by meiosis to produce four haploid megaspores; one of the megaspores divides to form the female gametophyte. The male gametophyte lands on the female cone, forming a pollen tube through which the generative cell travels to meet the female gametophyte. One of the two sperm cells released by the generative cell fuses with the egg, forming a diploid zygote that divides to form the embryo. Bald cypress cones don't strictly resemble most conifers' cones. Their structure is round, approximately 1 inch in diameter. They are initially tough and green when they appear in autumn, but they become more woody as the season progresses. The cone is, like those of most conifers, made of many scales, each of which has two triangular seeds. These seeds are eaten by many animals, including squirrels, wild turkeys, wood ducks, and various water birds. If the seeds are not consumed by animals and distributed in that manner, the remaining seeds are often distributed by floodwaters that frequently sweep through bald cypresses' habitats. Unlike most conifers, the bald cypress is deciduous! It loses its "leaves" earlier than most deciduous trees, and gains them back later than most, leading to the "baldness" referred into in its most common name. When the deciduous bald cypresses are not "bald", they can be distinguished from other cypresses by the extreme flatness of their needles. This leads to a relatively unique way to characterize a specific bald cypress in phenology.
Other information of interest: 

Note that all three images contain the pneumatophore “knees”. When the tree grows in standing water, the knees are visible extending above the surface of the water, leading to the ethereal sight that has given rise to the names of places like the “Great Dismal Swamp” in North Carolina.

Media and Arts
Dr. Peter Gallagher tells us all about the bald cypress – a unique tree that can survive in wet and well-drained landscapes.