Garden Variety: Bald cypress trees changing colors, shedding needles

Bald cypress trees usually draw extra attention during this time of year because their needles are changing colors and dropping to the ground like the leaves of many broadleaf trees. Since most needled trees keep their green needles year-round, this behavior seems unusual, but it’s completely natural for this species. Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is native to the southern U.S. and parts of the Midwest and is a good selection for planting in much of Kansas.

Each winter, the needles of bald cypress trees turn a reddish-brown color, whether they are still on the tree or on the ground below. They have already started dropping from trees in a process that usually takes a few weeks, although unusually low temperatures and harsh winds could speed up the rate of needle fall.

Bald cypress is adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions, has few pest problems and requires little maintenance. The only real limiting factor for planting is that the species is quite large, growing to a mature height of 50 to 70 feet and width of 20 to 30 feet. This makes it best suited to large yards or green spaces.

When needles are present on bald cypress trees in spring and summer, they are medium green in color and have a soft, feathery appearance and feel. The overall shape of the tree is broadly pyramidal.

There are a few cultivated varieties of bald cypress available on the market that are smaller than the species and were selected for variations in appearance. Shawnee Brave (“Mickelson”) bald cypress is a narrow and slightly shorter version of the species that is recommended for smaller spaces. For tiny yards and other even smaller areas, consider Peve Minaret bald cypress, a dwarf variety that reportedly grows to 8 to 10 feet tall by 3 to 4 feet wide. Another option is Cascade Falls bald cypress, a weeping form of the tree that grows 8 to 20 feet tall.

Bald cypress is sometimes thought of as liking lots of water or being a good selection for swampy or poorly drained areas. It is very suitable for wet soil conditions, and when grown in these kinds of areas, the roots will often grow upwards out of the water, forming knobby protrusions called knees. The tree also grows well in drier, upland sites, though, and it has proven to be very drought tolerant.

In very high pH soils, bald cypress may take on a lime green or yellow coloration. Since soil pH is difficult to affect in established plantings, soil pH testing prior to planting is recommended. If the pH is very high, amend the soil or choose a different species.

Bald cypress is in the same family as redwood. Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is the closest relative and is very similar in appearance. Dawn redwood also sheds its needles in the fall and is native to China but suited for planting in Kansas.

Trees with leaves or needles that drop in fall are known as deciduous trees. Trees that hang onto their leaves or needles throughout the winter are evergreens. Both classifications include tree species with broad leaves and tree species with needles.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.

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