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Native Tree of the Year

Adkins Arboretum’s Native Tree of the Year Program highlights the ecological and ornamental value of native trees to promote their protection in natural areas and use in cultivated landscapes.

2021 Native Tree of the Year: Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

There is something about the sunlight filtering through the delicate, feathery leaves of the bald cypress that makes me smile. Whether pale green in the summer or rusty brown in the fall, the bald cypress has a soft vibrancy to it. Its unique knobby knees pop up in the saturated soils inviting you to understand that there is a whole network supporting its stately appearance. 

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) reaches its northernmost range at Adkins Arboretum. It is considered native to the southern coastal plain, more commonly found in Dorchester County southward. Adkins Arboretum has established bald cypress trees along the branch leading into the main wetland, as well as along the wetland edges. While the majority of these trees were planted in the 1980s, they are setting viable seed, and we occasionally find a young bald cypress in the margins of the wetland ready to spread its roots. We also have planted bald cypress in some upland gardens that are surrounded by dry parking areas. Bald cypress can tolerate a wide variety of soils from relatively dry to saturated; and appreciates full sun. It produces catkins in the spring and tight cones about the size of gumballs. These cones eventually turn brown and will break apart into sections of resinous seeds. 

The bald cypress is also the host plant for the bald cypress sphinx moth larva (found mostly south of here). Its wildlife interactions are not limited to host plants, as I have also seen a tree frog or two hanging out in the protective nooks of the bark. Waterfowl, including wood ducks, as well as other small mammals also relish the seeds. 

When looking at a bald cypress, a few characteristics are telling of its environmental history and where it naturally grows. A buttressed or widened trunk allows for added stability and support in a waterlogged and swampy environment. The “knees” may also provide added support, as well as a way to improve gas exchange in the root system. Additionally, bald cypress are one of few native trees considered a deciduous conifer, shedding their leaves in the fall and producing cones each year. 

So why are only a few conifers deciduous? Some suggest that the bald cypress has evolved to produce “cheaper” needles each year rather than make the costly initial investment of producing hearty needles that will last for years. Note that the needle of a bald cypress is much softer and less waxy than that of a pine or cedar tree. Given that most bald cypress grow naturally in swamps, some also posit that in a lower nutrient environment, the bald cypress would do well to produce what it can with available nutrients. Deciduous behavior can be considered an adaptation to environmental stress (drought, low nutrients, hypoxia, freezing temperatures, etc.). By shedding its needles in winter, it helps to maintain balance between respiration and slowed photosynthetic activity. Since bald cypress inhabits a more southern range, it can afford to regrow leaves in spring rather than having to rely on last year’s leaves to take advantage of a shorter growing season. 

These stunning trees are slow growing but can live up to 600 years old—now that is a lasting and important impact on an ecosystem. 

Trees previously named Adkins Arboretum Native Tree of the Year include Liriodendron tulipifera (American tulip tree, 2011), Quercus alba (white oak, 2012), Magnolia virginiana (sweetbay magnolia, 2013), Fagus americana (American beech, 2014), Cercis canadensis (Eastern redbud, 2015), Juniperus virginiana (Eastern red cedar, 2016), Sassafras albidum (Sassafras, 2018), and Asimina triloba (paw paw, 2020).

Look for bald cypress on the plant availability list posted on our website starting in March!

Kathy Thornton
Land Steward

Photo by Kathy Thornton