Bald Cypress: A Distinctly Different Tree

The bald cypress is a tree of beautiful opposites and surprising characteristics. Discover why professional arborists, community members, and Root Nashville tree recipients love this unique species. The Bald Cypress is one of five free tree options available for neighborhood yards this planting season.
A beautiful bald cypress outside Nashville First Church of the Nazarene near downtown.

Every fall, in support of the citywide Root Nashville campaign, the Cumberland River Compact offers five free tree species to community members in Davidson County.  Recipients can request three large canopy trees and two smaller understory trees. The species offered changes each season to increase biodiversity – and to offer new selections to neighborhoods that participate more than once – but we focus on native species that are both hardy and tough while also crowd-pleasing.

The bald cypress, one of this season’s selections, fits all of these criteria and more, boasting a reputation as a beloved urban tree species that fits a variety of growing situations.

Colorful Contrasts

What makes the bald cypress unique? Almost everything about it! This species loves water and naturally thrives in very wet areas – especially along rivers and in swamps of the Mississippi Valley watershed, along the Gulf Coast, and across the mid-Atlantic (National Wildlife Federation).

Despite its love of water, the bald cypress is also very drought-tolerant. As a testament to its hardiness, the bald cypress is often planted as a street tree because it can grow well even in areas of higher pollution, flash stormwater runoff, and compacted soil.

This means the bald cypress can tolerate – and even thrive – in a variety of challenging environments.

Bald cypress as street trees
Bald cypress in a swamp

But it’s not just this species’ hardiness that makes it unique. There is another characteristic that reveals the reason for its common name. The bald cypress is a conifer, is cone-bearing, and has needle-like leaves. But unlike most other conifers, this tree is deciduous; its needles turn beautiful shades of russet brown and orange in the fall and then drop completely. Hence: the bald cypress!

Image Source: https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/bald-cypress

Special Structure

Bald cypress are typically easy to identify – even for beginners. Much of this ease can be attributed to the bald cypress’ structure: it grows in a clear pyramidal shape with symmetrical evenness.

Neighbors have often cited and asked about this epic bald cypress in Inglewood off Gallatin Pike, near Sip Cafe!
Image Source: https://naturewalk.yale.edu/trees/cupressaceae/taxodium-distichum/bald-cypress-69

In residential yards and urban areas, the strong triangle shape of the bald cypress takes center stage. But in swamps or very wet areas, another unusual feature of these trees’ structure pops up, quite literally: their knees. These bumps emerge from the ground near the trunk of a bald cypress, almost like stalagmites. They do look strange, and can give a spooky air to swamps, but what might be even stranger than their appearance is that scientists aren’t 100% sure of the knees’ purpose! (Garden & Gun, “An Ode to Bald Cypress, Unsung Hero of Autumn”).

Image Source: https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/caddo-lake/nature

But don’t worry about the safety of your lawn mower, or tripping over a bald cypress knee if you’ve planted this tree in an average Nashville yard. It isn’t very likely that a knee will pop up above ground, unless planted right along a stream or waterway – and if you do find them in your yard, they probably will not grow very tall. (If they are bothering you, you can also cut the knees down and it won’t hurt the tree!)

Noteworthy Texture

The distinct features of the bald cypress don’t stop at its hardiness or shape. This deciduous conifer also boasts unique bark: reddish and fibrous when younger, then becoming more reddish gray as it matures. The bark can look a little flaky or stringy up close. The textured bark is balanced by its very soft, pliable needles that look just like feathers.

Nearly everywhere you look at this large, epic tree, you are sure to find something interesting, and the bald cypress makes a great statement tree in front or backyards. Extra bald cypress trees may be available this planting season! If you would like to add one to your existing order, or if you would like to be added to the waitlist, reach out to us at hello@rootnashville.org.

Header Image Source

Bald Cypress As Street Trees Image Source

Bald Cypress in Swamp Image Source

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