By: Russell Stafford
Even if you’ve never been to the Southeast U.S., you’re probably familiar with one of its signature plant communities: the bald cypress swamp. Nothing looks more “Deep South” than a flooded grove of buttress-trunked Taxodium distichum draped with Spanish moss. It might surprise you then to learn that bald cypress makes an excellent (and hardy) subject for all sorts of garden situations in regions as cold as USDA Hardiness Zone (minus 10 to minus 20 F).
Bald Cypress Landscape Needs
Whether your landscape is wet or dry, sandy or clayey, large or small, sunny or lightly shaded, your probably have a place for one of the many forms of this picturesque deciduous conifer – minus the Spanish moss. Best growth occurs in full sun and relatively porous, humus-rich soil, so you might want to work some Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost into the planting area if it’s excessively heavy or sandy. To take the pampering to an even higher level, and mulch your bald cypress annually with an inch or two of compost.
A full-sized bald cypress needs ample garden space – something that might not be apparent from the deceptively slender young specimens at the nursery. Its form begins to fill out in its teens and twenties, as its previously rapid vertical growth slows and its lower reaches broaden. The result at maturity is a classic coniferous pyramid, 50 or 60 feet tall and half as wide. It subjected to wet soils, older specimens produce knobby “knees” from the roots that provide landscape interest.
Bald cypresses of whatever age and size produce feathery clusters of short, flat needles that flush bright green in late spring, deepen to rich green in summer, and turn bronzy-orange in fall. Curious spherical cones with wrinkled surfaces develop in summer, morphing from green to brown as they mature. After leaf fall, bald cypress continues to provide interest with its symmetrical silhouette, rusty-brown bark, and persistent cones.
Bald Cypress Varieties
If you don’t have acreage but want to incorporate this outstanding four-season ornamental into your garden, Taxodium distichum comes in numerous shapes and sizes that are an easier fit than the full-sized edition.
For gardens that can accommodate the full height but not the full breadth of a standard-issue bald cypress, there’s ‘Shawnee Brave’. This 60-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide cultivar fits more neatly into narrow garden niches.
The cultivar ‘Skyward’ is compact in both width and height, eventually forming a 20-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide spire. It works well as an accent or allee tree for smaller gardens.
Bald cypress also comes in cascading, weeping forms – quite apropos for a species that’s associated with water. They include ‘Falling Waters’, with drooping branches dangling from an upright 20-foot tall trunk in “Cousin It” fashion. In contrast, ‘Cascade Falls’ snakes along the ground as a prostrate ground cover unless its trunk is either staked upright or grafted onto a straight trunk.
Dwarf selections of bald cypress include ‘Peve Minaret’, which perfectly miniaturizes the form of the full-sized version. Its sister cultivar ‘Peve Yellow’ is of similar size (and name), differing in its eye-catching pale yellow foliage. Both ‘Peve’ cultivars grow approximately 8-feet tall and 4-feet wide in 10 years – ideal for use in a mixed border or large rock garden.
Some miniature cultivars go their own way when it comes to form. The branches of ‘Cody’s Feathers’ are anything but symmetrical, resulting in an endearingly shaggy, rounded, 6-foot shrub that looks like it had an extremely bad hair day. It’s a prolific cone-bearer, which amplifies the effect.
Shaggy and rounded is also the general look of ‘Cave Hill’, but in an even smaller size than ‘Cody’s Feathers’ (3-feet tall and wide). It’s also notable for its bright green foliage. This dwarf cultivar is ready-made for small garden niches, such as rock gardens and troughs, as is ‘Secrest’, which sports the shaggy look in a somewhat denser, flatter form. Both are often grown as standards, grafted on a short trunk.
Dwarf selections may not have the majesty of a Taxodium distichum in its native haunts (which span a surprisingly wide geographic range, from southern Iowa to the upper Mid Atlantic states to Guatemala). But any form of bald cypress that can fit in your garden is worth considering.
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