How to Grow and Care for the Bald Cypress

Bald cypress tree with jade needle-like leaves in forest

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

The bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, is most often associated with Southern swamps and bayous covered in Spanish moss. However, the tree has been discovered as an ideal specimen for those designing gardens and urban outdoor spaces. Today, the conifer can be found along city streets and driveways providing light, dappled shade.

The bald cypress is a large deciduous conifer that sheds it needles in the late autumn (hence, the name 'bald cypress'). The feathery, delicate needles and beautiful bark and cones make it an exciting addition to a landscape design in any season.

Most people immediately think of the famous cypress knees, technically called pneumataphores, that grow around the trunk’s flared base jutting out of black waters. These otherworldly-looking growths are woody projections growing from the tree’s roots. The knees usually grow on trees set in standing water, but they can appear in dry sites. The odd growths, which start to develop when the tree is around the age of 10, come in all sizes but usually match the average depth of the surrounding water. Scientists believe that the knees provide structural support to the trees growing in wet, swampy soils.

The first thing you might notice is the possibility of the famous knees that grow around the trunk’s flared base. These otherworldly-looking growths are woody projections growing from the tree’s roots. The knees usually grow on trees set in standing water, but they can appear in dry sites. The odd growths, which start to develop when the tree is around the age of 10, come in all sizes but usually match the average depth of the surrounding water. The bizarre thing about these knees is that nobody knows why they form—they just do.

The bald cypress has alluring jade needles arranged in two rows on either side of a narrow stem that are soft and feathery to the touch throughout spring and summer. Then, as the temperatures drop, the needles turn to a warm coppery gold. This autumn color will not last long before falling, leaving a gift of attractive rust-colored mulch inches deep under the tree.

Whether planting one tree or a grove, using it in a dry area, or as a featured tree near a rain garden, the bald cypress has both horticultural uses and ecological benefits that tip the scale. The tree feeds birds, rabbits, and various insects while providing cover and shelter for deer and birds.

Botanical Name Taxodium distichum
Common Name Bald Cypress
Plant Type  Deciduous Conifer
Mature Size 50-70 ft. tall, 20-30 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Average, medium to wet, but adaptable
Soil pH Prefers acidic, but can be adaptable
Bloom Time Non-flowering
Flower Color Non-flowering
Hardiness Zones 4-9, USDA
Native Area  Southern United States

Bald Cypress Care

The bald cypress is a conifer that can give your landscape a unique four-season point of interest. Once established in the right location, the tree can last for centuries. Most of your efforts when caring for the tree will come during the initial planning and planting stage. Planting a tree that can become as large as the bald cypress is an investment of your time and your space.

Before planting a bald cypress, carefully consider the location placement. Not the current size of the tree but also remember how large it will be in 10 years or at maturity. If you might add that patio, pergola, or pool in a few years, the tree you just planted could disrupt those plans. Look at your home and the infrastructure, such as plumbing, sewers, electrical, and foundation, and decide if the tree will cause an obstruction or hazard. Even trees planted in dry areas can develop cypress knees that are a problem when mowing. If they develop, consider them decorative and include them in a mulched bed under the tree.

Finally, check the soil. Testing the soil before planting your tree is the best time to see if conditions are suitable for a particular species.  If they aren’t, you may be able to amend the site to make conditions perfect, or you may choose to go with another tree altogether.  The secret to most successful planting projects is planning and site prep. Doing these two things will make caring for your tree so much easier over time.

Bald cypress tree with orange needle-like leaves in middle of field

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Bald cypress tree with light gray-green bark and needle-like leaves on branches

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Bald cypress tree branches with jade needle-like leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

This tree does not tolerate shade well; it should be planted in an area that receives full sun to partial shade. It will fail to thrive in areas that receive less sun, and you will notice growth and foliage issues as a result.

Soil

Bald cypress needs to have soil that has good drainage but retains moisture. The soil also needs to be acidic and should have a moist and sandy consistency. If you test the soil pH during planting and acidity is too low you can always amend the soil at this point. A quick way to do this is by adding peat moss into your soil during planting.

Water

You are likely to see the bald cypress growing along the banks of streams, lakes, and rivers in the wild. It will grow in both standing water and well-draining soils. Though it does well in wet conditions, it does tolerate some drought and actually thrives in well-draining conditions. However, mites can be troublesome in extremely dry conditions and cause early needle-drop. Irrigation during times of stress will alleviate the problem.

Temperature and Humidity

Often considered a fabled tree of the swampy south, the bald cypress is quite hardy. Trees planted in the Northeastern United States are hardy to temperatures of -20° to -29° Fahrenheit. Their USDA zone is 4-9.

Fertilizer

There is no need to give the bald cypress supplemental fertilizer; however, slow-release all-purpose fertilizer can be added in the spring if the tree is located in a dry site away from waterways. Soil amendments may be needed to adjust pH to increase soil acidity.  

Cultivars

One point to consider before adding your own to your landscape is its size. It may be too big for the area you plan to place it in when it reaches maturity. Luckily in recent years, growers have seen the need to supply other colors, sizes, and forms in various cultivars to folks looking for bald cypress to use as options in small or unusually shaped spaces or who may just want something more unique.

  • ‘Skyward’: A dwarf cultivar, that matures to a height of 25 to 30 feet and a spread of 5 to 10 feet with a columnar habit, it is well-suited for smaller landscapes. It has dark green needles turn golden copper then bronze before being shed.
  • ‘Pendens’: A weeping pyramidal form that has nearly horizontal branches.
  • ‘Mickelson’: A pyramidal to columnar tree with a dense crown that grows to 50 to 75 feet high and 15 to 20 feet wide. 
  • ‘Monarch of Illinois’: A wide-spreading and leaderless tree that tends to not develop knees..
  • ‘Peve Minaret’: A dwarf cultivar that can grow up to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide but can be pruned to establish any number of shapes.