By Meaghan English, TrueSouth Properties Wildlife Specialist
It is nice to see all the variations of green throughout the woods this time of year. One of my favorite “green trees” this time of year is the Pond and Bald Cypress, or Taxodium ascendens and Taxodium distichum. Although there are many similarities, these two trees also have just as many differences and a very unique history. Pond and Bald cypresses have distinguishing characteristics, thrive in wet habitats, and have many uses.
One of the most intriguing characteristics of a pond cypress is the fact that the leaves grow in an upward fashion. They are a very lime green in the spring and summer time, but turn reddish-brown and drop in the fall and winter, just like the bald cypress The tree itself can be 100 or more feet tall, but only reach a diameter of 3 to 5 feet. The bark is a light gray and appears to be slightly shaggy. The pond cypress also produces very large, rounded knees that cover the ground surrounding the tree. The knees allow the tree to get oxygen in a flooded area. On the other hand, the bald cypress features needles that seem to fan out and lay more flat than pond cypress leaves. The knees of bald cypresses are more pointed in shape and stand much taller than pond cypress knees, but serve the same function.
Both cypress trees flourish in areas that experience extended periods of flooding and habitats where the water level fluctuates with the seasons. For example, both cypress trees can be found in alluvial swamps and along the shallow edge of streams and rivers. Bald cypress most commonly grows alongside water tupelos, while pond cypresses grow with other pond cypresses or solo. Both are very common throughout the Southeast, especially in swampy, poor draining areas.
Bald cypress is one of the most desired trees for its beautiful wood and sturdy heartwood. Part of its desirability is the fact that it is mostly resistant to decay (even as it stands in feet of water!), especially very mature bald cypresses. The hardy wood made it a prime candidate for docks and boat slips and other exterior siding. As lumber mills would transport the huge trees down rivers, many logs would sink and would never decay even after centuries of being submerged. That is where “sinker cypress” is born! The logs are retrieved and milled and used for paneling and trim work. If a log has a spot that has been infected by a fungus, that log is titled “pecky cypress”. The “pecky cypress” is just as desired as “sinker cypress”, regardless of its imperfections. The pond cypress and the bald cypress can be found as far north as Southern Canada, but are most prominent in the Southeast. With that being said, the bald cypress is the state tree of Louisiana and is used in many landscapes throughout the state.
Sometimes it is very difficult to tell these two apart because they tend to hybridize when growing together. However, when they are not growing together it is easiest to tell them apart by the shape of their knees. Most people associate bald and pond cypress with flooded timber and duck hunting. Other people have one or two growing in their yards. Next time you encounter a cypress, test your identification skills by observing the leaves and the knees!
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