Identifying trees is a learning process except when it comes to the elegant Italian Cypress, Cupressus sempervirens. The tall, columnar shape of this Mediterranean native is said to look like a bird's feather or exclamation point, which makes it stand out and up, especially when several are planted side by side. Italian cypress grows to an average 50 feet tall and spreads just 4 to 5 feet, narrowing to a point at the crown. Foliage is evergreen with sprays of dark gray-green needles on short, upright branches. It does not flower but produces glossy, round, brown or copper-colored seed cones in autumn.
|Italian Cypress Tree|
|Common Name||Italian Cypress, Mediterranean Cypress, Pencil pine|
|Botanical Name||Cupressus sempervirens|
|Plant Type||Evergreen tree|
|Mature Size||50 ft. tall, 4-5 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full to part|
|Soil Type||Well-drained sandy loam|
|Hardiness Zones||7-10 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Mediterranean basin|
Italian Cypress Care
This evergreen lives up to a 150 years in the urban landscape and a thousand years in its native climate. Young trees grow as much as 3 feet a year, slowing as they mature. It's often used to border or screen other landscape elements in formal gardens, parks and estate homes. Several shorter cultivars offer greater versatility for homeowners, growing from 10 to 30 feet tall and 1 to 3 feet wide. Given the right climate, this is a fairly easy tree to grow. Its structure, however, makes problems clearly visible, which can defeat the tree's purpose in the landscape.
Plant in full to part sun with at least four to six hours of even sunlight daily. Growing too close to a fence or building results in uneven or stunted foliage on one side. A small amount of shade is tolerated, but too much can lead to a scraggly, unattractive appearance.
This evergreen adapts to a wide range of soil types, as long as they drain well. Sandy loam with a pH of 5.5 to 7.5 is ideal.
Italian cypress prefer to grow in dry conditions. Young trees should be watered regularly at soil level until established. Mature trees are drought resistant and usually thrive with average rainfall amounts in their growing zones. Overwatering can lead to root rot, causing leaves and branches to turn yellow and die back. Water at the base of the tree to prevent fungal infections.
Temperature and Humidity
Hot, dry climates are preferred. This tree can tolerate temperatures as high as 125 degrees F., for short periods of time, if kept hydrated. Provide winter protection when temperatures dip to 10 degrees F. or below. Humidity associated with high temperatures is tolerated better that cold, wet air.
Apply a fertilizer with an NPK 5-10-10 annually in early spring when new growth starts to emerge.
Types of Italian Cypress
- C. sempervirens 'Glauca (Blue)': a fast-growing, dense variety with-blue green foliage. Also called pencil pine, reaches 40 to 60 feet in height with a 5 to 10 foot spread.
- C. sempervirens 'Green Pencil': the tallest variety at up to 115 feet tall with a very narrow spread of 3 feet. Foliage is gray-green.
- C. sempervirens 'Swane’s Golden': a dwarf cultivar producing new foliage in a golden yellow color. This type grows slowly to 20 feet tall with a spread of 3 feet.
- C. sempervirens 'Swane’s Variegated': a narrow dwarf variety growing 10 feet tall and just 1 foot wide. Foliage is dark green liberally marked with patches of yellow.
- C. sempervirens 'Tiny Tower': a dwarf variety growing to 30 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Lush blue-green foliage.
Pruning isn't required, however this tree is grown for its distinct appearance, so trimming helps achieve and maintain a desired shape. Methods are similar to pruning a hedge. Cut back foliage in winter to promote even, lush growth. When the tree reaches a desired height, it can be topped by removing 6 inches of the crown. Flat-topping halts upward growth and increases width of the spread.
Propagation is accomplished with cuttings taken in winter. You need a hand pruner or snipper, potting medium, a 6 inch pot with drainage holes, and plastic covering.
- Use the pruner to remove stems from a young trees or from the lowest branches or larger tree. Stems should be thick enough to stand on their own in potting medium.
- Remove needles from the bottom 4 inches of the stem/cutting.
- Fill a 6 inch pot with a moistened mix of potting soil, sand and perlite.
- Use your index finger to poke a 1 to 2 inch hole in the center of the pot.
- Insert the bottom part of the cutting, making sure attached needles clear the soil line. Press medium in around the stem to keep it upright.
- Water well to settle the cutting/soil, making sure excess water drains well.
- Place the pot in a plastic bag. Use a small stake, if necessary ,to keep the plastic from contacting the cutting.
- Set in bright, indirect light with temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees. Keep the potting medium moist.
- Roots should begin to develop in five to six weeks. Check by gently pulling on the cutting. Resistance indicates success.
- Grow new plants out in pots for one year before transplanting into the garden.
How to Grow Italian Cypress from Seed
Seeds can be purchased or collected from cones. They fall easily from the cone when mature and require stratification. Sow seed in pots in winter and keep them in an outdoor location, or bag seed with a small amount of moist sawdust and refrigerate for three to four weeks. You'll need seeds, potting mix, compost and a flat or small pots. When you're ready to plant, follow these steps:
- Moisten a mix of potting medium and compost.
- Use pots with drainage holes or poke several holes in the bottom of a flat. Fill with potting mix.
- Make a slight depression about 1/4 inch deep for each seed. Cover loosely with mix.
- Place in bright, indirect light with temperatures between 65 and 70 degrees F.
- Keep moist by misting or watering with a rose spout or spray setting on your hose nozzle. Do not let containers dry out.
- Germination occurs in one to two months. When seedlings are sturdy enough to handle, pot up into 6 inch pots and continue growing out for one year before planting in the garden.
- If grown indoors, make sure to harden off seedlings.
Potting and Repotting
Italian cypress can be grown in pots, but you should be prepared for extra maintenance to keep them looking good. Water container-grown trees regularly and fertilize with an NPK slightly higher in nitrogen, once in spring and mid-summer.
- Starting out with a nursery grown tree, pot it up into a container at least 2 inches larger than the one it's in.
- Choose a container with plenty of drainage holes and fill it with potting soil mixed, sand, and perlite.
- Plant the tree at the same soil level as in its original pot.
- Pot up as needed until the tree reaches the desired height. Do this in fall and winter when the tree is dormant to prevent transplant shock.
- To maintain height and keep roots from overcrowding, the roots should be pruned annually.
Italian cypress grown in USDA zones 7 to 10 do not need winter protection, unless temperatures fall to 10 degrees F. or below. Covering young, vulnerable trees can prevent frost damage. Potted Italian cypress do need some protection and can be moved to a sheltered location, as long as they continue to receive bright sunlight. Reduce watering when the tree is in dormancy.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
This tree is fairly disease and pest free. Bagworms and spider mites can lead to unsightly webbing and defoliation. Bagworm cocoons can be handpicked. Use a strong hose spray to remove spider mites but do this early in the day to allow foliage to dry before nightfall.
Cypress canker is a fungal disease identified by long, narrow sunken spots on the trunk or branches that ooze sap. Needles turn yellow, then brown and die. Control canker by removing infected branches, sterilizing your cutting tool between each cut. Root rot also presents as foliage dieback and occurs when a tree is overwatered.
Common Problems with Italian Cypress
This is an easy care evergreen with drought tolerance, disease and pest resistance. Common problems most often relate to maintaining its size and shape.
Planted too close to a structure that blocks bright sunlight, Italian cypress develops uneven foliage with healthy, dense needles on the sunny side and straggly, thin foliage on the shaded side.
Some cultivars can develop more than one trunk. Keep an eye out for this during the first several years of rapid growth and remove any suckers growing on or near the base of the tree. Each trunk will produce branching and a crown. This results in poor air circulation and defeats the single columnar shape of the tree.
Unbalanced growth with multiple plantings
This is a problem when several trees are planted in a hedge type grouping. Not allowing enough distance between trees causes them to compete for nutrients and can lead to stunting or uneven growth. Roots are shallow and spread to the width of the tree. Leave enough room between your chosen variety to accommodate its mature width.
How big do Italian cypress trees get?
Average size is 50 feet tall and 4 to 5 feet wide but they can get bigger. Several shorter and dwarf cultivars have been developed including C. sempervirens "Tiny Tower" which grows to just 30 feet tall with a slightly narrower spread.
What is the lifespan of an Italian cypress?
Landscape trees and cultivars can live for 150 years. In their native environment, these trees live up to one-thousand years.
Are Italian cypress roots invasive?
Roots are not invasive, however they are shallow and extend to the width of the tree which, in taller varieties, averages 4 to 5 feet.