Taxodium distichum, also known as the bald cypress, is a conifer belonging to the Cupressaceae family. T. distichium differs from most members of the Cupressaceae family as it is deciduous rather than evergreen. This makes ‘bald cypress’ an appropriate common name, as T. distichum loses its leaves during the winter time. Its native area ranges from southern Delaware to southern Florida. The bald cypress is most common in loose moist soils of wetlands, but they are also known to thrive at elevations well above sea level in compact soils.
The bald cypress can grow from 25-40 metres tall. Trees grow relatively fast, with up to 15 metres of height gained in 15-25 years. Typically, the trunk diameter reaches 2-3 metres at maturity. Needle-like leaves, which resemble a feather, are dull green in colour and turn copper red before being shed in the wintertime. The bark ranges from grayish brown to reddish brown in colour. Furthermore, the bark is characterized by a “stringy texture”, as pieces easily come off in strips. These trees also produce aerial roots that protrude above the water level which are often referred to as “knees”.
The bald cypress is monoecious with both female and male reproductive structures growing on the same plant. The male structures that produce pollen are called catkins. They can reach up to 2mm in width and 13 cm in length. Catkins are conical structures that droop from branches so that pollen may be wind dispersed. The female structures, or seed cones, are green when immature and turn grayish brown at maturity. Seed cones are usually 2-3.5 cm in diameter, and are spherical in shape. At maturity, cones begin to fall apart. This allows approximately 20-40 seeds to be released.
The bald cypress is the common name given to Taxodium distichum var. distichum, as it is the most typical and widespread of the species. This species is often confused with another variety, T. distichum var. nutans, which goes by the common name of pond cypress. The pond cypress can generally be found growing in shallow ponds and in still-water wetlands, while var. distichum grows in river or stream swamp areas. Furthermore, T. distichum var. nutans are less likely to have aerial roots, however when they do, they are typically more rounded and shorter than those of the bald cypress. Of the two varieties, var. nutans tends to have branchlets that are more ascending and its bark is more coarsely ridged.
T. distichum can be used for large scale construction because it is especially resistant to decay and water exposure. The tree produces an oil called cypressene, which is potentially responsible for its resistance to decay. For this reason it has been nicknamed the “eternal wood”. The tree has been harvested particularly for larger projects such as building of bridges, buildings, and docks. Besides construction, T. distichum can be used for ornamental purposes, having been planted in many areas around the world.
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