Flora: Taxodium distichum

Taxodium distichum
Bald cypress tree

“Taxodium distichum, Deciduous cypress.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1837.

The bald cypress tree is a native to the Ogeechee River basin, with a network that stretches across the southern United States. Reaching heights of more than 100 feet tall and spanning diameters of 6 feet or more, this deciduous conifer echoes the giant nature of its relatives in the Redwood Forest. Under the right conditions, the bald cypress can live for centuries. 

Adorned with Spanish moss, bald cypress trees are often the tallest of the lot. Overhead, a canopy of color ranges from soft green to brilliant orange, to tan – depending on the season. As the name suggests, bald cypresses lose their needles in the fall and remain bare until late spring. In early growth stages, stringy layers of reddish-brown bark will peel off to reveal deeper, more pitted grooves with age. An elongated trunk fans out into a pleated, hollow base. 

The most interesting features are what are known as cypress knees (pneumatophores). These scraped up, wobbly mounds appear around the tree’s base in various shapes and sizes when water is present. They congregate in conical droves, but the true function of cypress knees remains unknown.

There is heavy speculation that these knobby structures are conduits for aeration. Acting like snorkels, cypress knees might deliver air to crucial points where water is high and dissolved oxygen is low. They may also help with nutrient absorption/distribution. 

The bald cypress tree shares a symbiotic relationship with the environment. Cypress trees found in wetlands are great storage units for excess water, which prevents downstream flooding and long-term erosion. Additionally, the bald cypress is a buffer that disengages toxins from the watershed.  

From crown to root, the bald cypress is home to a multitude of critters. Wading birds and large raptors use the treetops as vantage points for nesting or hunting. Smaller mammals, such as rats or squirrels, roost in the nooks and crannies of the trunk. The stumpy knees provide a habitat for frogs, lizards, fish, and even alligators.

Cones produced by the bald cypress are foraged as a food source. The round, greenish pellets that drop in the fall contain seeds that are edible to certain species (humans excluded). Throughout the winter, cones will ripen up and the seeds can then be enjoyed by squirrels, ducks, and wild turkey. 

Highly coveted in the lumber industry, the bald cypress tree upholds its reputation with endurance and strength. It is inherently resistant to water and slow to rot due to its “pecky” grain. Pecky cypress bears a malleable texture that is easy to work with and makes excellent indoor furniture for shelves, tables, or chairs. Finding the right piece can be like mining for gold.

To its advantage, the bald cypress has made a home in destinations that are uninviting and downright inaccessible to most loggers. The best lumber remains concealed by the murky mysteries of America’s swampland. ORk recommends one simply admires the bald cypress via a trip on the river.

– LP