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Baldcypress: A Deciduous Conifer

December 3, 2008

By Eric Larson

baldcypressI heard the sputter of an idling chain saw as I drove up the quiet lane to the Colonel’s ‘cottage’ the other afternoon. Although it was a bit on the chilly side, the sun was out and because their house lies on the leeward side of a point of rocky forest, there was little wind and I had my truck window open.

I stopped long enough to see the tree trimmers were too busy to confer, and continued up to the stone house where the Colonel and his wife Millicent spend their ‘golden years.’ The Colonel responded to my query about the tree crew.  “Just cleaning a bit of the dead-wood out.  There are a few trees that you planted that don’t seem to have made it, so…” Alarmed, I asked which trees he was referring to.

“That cluster of odd-looking evergreens near the pond have dropped their leaves and are not long for this world. They look like they’ll make good kindling.”  The pond being outside of his usual haunts (far away from his Heath ‘driving range,’ the car park and the verandah with the statue of Wellington), I was in fear for the grove of young Baldcypress that I had planted.  I considered the best method of verbal assault, and decided that the best course was to grab my hat and check on the adolescent Baldcypress myself.  My stomach wambled as I exited the door and headed towards the pond.  For once the Colonel had me truly upset: not at his poor opinion of me (‘Woodpusher’ he would declaim after a brief dispirited chess game) but at the possibility the old coot had had my trees cut down. Yes, I use the pronoun correctly because all the trees that I have ever planted, no matter where or for whom, were my trees.

Baldcypress are an American native (“Another of your colonial sticks. Give me a Good English Oak,” sayeth the Colonel), whose native range extends from Delaware south to Florida, west to Illinois, Missouri and south from there to Louisiana and Texas. They have been planted far outside of this range though, and have been found to be hardy to 30 below zero Fahrenheit.  Specimens can be found in Canada and Minnesota.

Their natural habitat is poorly drained (think swampland) rich alluvial soils, but they are very adaptable, growing in sand or clay, and in dry soils as well.   The Cypress swamps of the Carolina’s and Louisiana are the quintessential habitat, with Spanish moss and alligators. The one soil attribute that will not be to their liking would be a high pH, as leaf chlorosis (yellowing of the foliage) occurs.

One of about six species of deciduous conifers, Baldcypress trees lose their leaves in the fall, just like a Maple or an Oak.  The leaves turn a bronze or pumpkin orange in November, lasting for about a week or ten days.  Subtle as compared to the Maples and other trees and shrubs highlighted in this column, yet beautiful in its own right.

Fortunately the foreman of the tree crew was skeptically eyeing the Baldcypress grove.  The trees, planted five years ago, were fifteen feet tall (I planted two foot specimens in keeping with my ‘Think big, plant small’ tenet) and obviously happy.  After introducing ourselves, I let the fellow know that indeed these trees were not slated for the chipper and kindling pile. His smile of relief was interrupted by the Colonel’s approach replete in hunting jacket and bright red knitted hat.

Taking the lead, I explained that I had come just in time to stop the slaughter. Fortunately the crew foreman interjected his agreement that the trees were healthy and worth keeping.   The Colonel’s face turned red, he snorted and the predictable retort, “Completely unasinous!  I thought the customer was always right to you colonials. Your claim of vetanda should be returned to you both for questioning my request to have these awkward-looking sticks…”

“Oh dear, the rarebit is piping hot, and I think we have enough for Mr. Larson as well. Oh don’t the Baldcypress look good!  I love the look of the needles spread on the ground at this time of the fall like the train of a lovely dress.”  Millicent to the rescue, as usual. I saw one last puff of steam rise from the Colonel’s ears as he rolled his eyes and  shrugged subtly as if to say, “You’ve won this round, my witling friend.

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