Cypress trees range from smaller shrubs to tall specimens.

What Is a Cypress Tree?

by Suzanna Didier

Striking in the landscape, cypress trees (Cupressus spp.) produce durable and lightweight wood that is made into shingles, tables and boxes. The term cypress describes a group of cone-bearing evergreen trees and shrubs native to the warmer regions of Asia, North America and Europe. It is also used to describe some trees that are not true cypresses.

1. Common Characteristics

True cypress trees are evergreens -- hanging on to their small, scaly leaves year-round. Their soft, aromatic leaves cover branchlets in opposite pairs, typically obscuring the trunk with their dense foliage. The views you get of the bark reveal a smooth surface in some species, but more often, rough bark that splits into strips and eventually drops from the tree. Young trees often have an elongated pyramid shape. As they mature, tiny round cones appear on the branch tips. With their upswept branches and dense foliage, many species of cypress make natural privacy walls.

2. Ornamentals

Displaying elegant foliage and eye-catching forms, cypress trees such as Arizona, Monterey and Kashmir are natural ornamentals. Arizona (Cupressus arizonica) and Monterey (Cupressus macrocarpa) both thrive in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 7 to 9. The Arizona cypress reaches a height of 40 feet at maturity with a 20-foot spread with the trunk covered in a furrowed, reddish bark mostly hidden under a blanket of soft blue-green needles. The wind-resistant Monterey cypress is taller, reaching at least 70 feet with bright green foliage and a narrow, pyramid shape. The Kashmir cypress, (Cupressus cashmeriana) native to Bhutan, doesn’t tolerate extreme heat or strong winds, grows to 60 feet in height with a 15- to 20-foot spread and flourishes in USDA zones 9 to 10.

3. Bald Cypress

Although its common name suggests it is a cypress, the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is not a member of the Cupressus genus, like a true cypress. Dropping its needles in the fall, it tolerates cooler winter temperatures, growing well in USDA zones 4 to 9. Native to the southeastern United States -- where it is often found growing in swamps and draped with Spanish moss -- the bald cypress reaches a mature height of 50 to 70 feet with a 20- to 45-foot spread. Although long-lived like a true cypress, it is closely related to the dawn redwood.

4. False Cypress

While the false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) makes no bones about its status, it actually has quite a lot in common with the true cypress. An evergreen reaching 60 feet in height, it has the same upright, pyramid growth habit and exfoliating reddish-brown bark on the trunk. Although it is an evergreen, the foliage color ranges from yellow-gold to blue-silver -- avoiding green altogether. Planted as a foundation shrub or specimen tree and tolerant of colder winter temperatures, it thrives in USDA zones 4 to 8.

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