This week for Flora and Fauna Friday it’s none other than our towering titans of the swamp, the Cypresses (Taxodium spp.).

Here in the Lowcountry we have two species of Cypress, the Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and the Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens). Both species live in forested wetlands, tolerate flooding well, are long-lived, and look similar but differ distinctly in their habitat preference and leaf shape. Bald Cypress is the quintessential species of Cypress we’re all familiar with. Huge ruddy-brown trunks on broad, buttressed bases towering over the surface of a bottomland forest in a sea of black leaf litter tea punctuated with cypress knees. That’s our Bald Cypress. They’re commonly found across the Lowcountry in permanent wetlands, especially in in bottomlands, blackwater rivers, oxbows, and floodplains. They also have feather-shaped leaves held outward from the stem, which is an easy way to distinguish them from Pond Cypress. Pond Cypress is often smaller than Bald Cypress but otherwise looks quite similar. However, its leaves are far thinner and held nearly upright on the stems. Pond Cypress is also far less common than Bald Cypress but most numerous in isolated permanent wetlands, especially Carolina Bays.

Cypresses are conifers and, like pines, produce cones. The cypress cone is a roughly inch wide ball with a segmented appearance, like the scutes of a turtle. Notably for a Lowcountry conifer, both our Cypresses are deciduous, losing their leaves in the winter. Cypresses are one of the most long-lived trees on Earth, with quite a few individuals exceeding the thousand year mark and a few breaking the two-thousand year threshold. Cypress Trees have many unique adaptations for life in the swamp. One notable feature is their buttressed trunks. This broadening of their trunk base gives them a more stable foundation in the soft, soupy soils they inhabit. Another unique adaptation are cypress knees. These are projections of the root system that extend up above the soil and water’s surface. They were originally thought to help the trees breathe in the water logged soils but scientists have been unable to find any evidence of the knees breathing. Current theories believe they help further stabilize the tree in the soil as well capture sediment beneath the tree. Cypresses also have one of the most rot resistant woods, allowing trees to stand for centuries without collapsing for them inside out. This made them an important timber species historically before the advent of treated lumber. Today, they still remain an economically important timber species in Florida for producing lumber for outdoor use in humid climates.

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