Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Bald Cypress

Illinois isn't usually an area that comes to mind when cypress trees are mentioned, but swamp vegetation typical of the Southeastern Coastal Plain reaches its northern limit in extreme southern Illinois (Alexander, Pulaski, Johnson, and Massac counties). Long before human records were kept, this strip of southern Illinois bordered the shoreline of a much larger Gulf of Mexico. Though the seas have retreated, the coastal plain of Illinois still resembles the landscape that surrounds the present- day gulf.

The bald cypress, whose name comes from the tree's habit of shedding its needles, giving it a bald appearance, has always elicited comments from those who view it. An English journalist in the 1860s described them as "a forest of dead trees, their ghostly leafless arms over buried trunks like plumes over a hearse. . . ." While making a botanical reconnaissance of several southern Illinois counties in 1919 for the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard, Earnest Palmer described bald cypress: "One of the most remarkable and quite the most conspicuous of the southern trees of this region is the cypress (Taxodiurn distichurn). . . . Specimens from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet high and measuring from four to six feet in diameter above the swelled base were by no means rare. . . ."

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Bald cypress trees are not true cypresses but belong to the same plant family as the sequoias, Taxodiaceae. These trees are the sequoias of the Midwest, with some reaching over 100 feet tall and from 800 to 1,500 years of age. The oldest and largest tree in the state is a bald cypress.

Needles appear in late March or early April with male and female flowers produced separately on the same tree. Male flowers are produced in purple clusters at the end of the preceding year's shoots. Small rounded female flowers are also borne on the preceding year's branchlets and may be found singly or in groups. The small (1.25 inches in diameter) fleshy purple cones ripen during October. The sticky seeds are scattered by water and require exposed mineral soil for germination. Once germinated, a seedling must not be inundated for more than three weeks during its first year.

These swamp trees have swollen bases (buttresses) and knees and can reach giant proportions. The cypress buttress, a flairing of the lower trunk, develops in response to water and helps provide a firm footing in the swamp. Knees are distinguished by their smooth conical shape and are produced on land that is subject to alternate flooding and drying. The height of a cypress knee usually corresponds to the high- water mark in the swamp.

With the exception of the chestnut, the bald cypress has probably had the greatest reduction in volume over the past century of any American tree. Bald cypress was once in great demand for shingles, shakes, and posts, anywhere wood is used in contact with the soil and exposed to weather because the wood is resistant to rot.

Perhaps the best place to view a bald cypress forest (swamp) is Heron Pond Nature Preserve near Vienna, Illinois. Here bald cypress, with its lush, feathery foliage, engulfs you. For a time you can be transported into the world of the 1860 journalist or the 1919 botanist Earnest Palmer and get a unique view of an Illinois treasure.

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology

Charlie Warwick, editor



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