Cypress trees are all part of the Cupressaceae family, part of the gymnosperms, or naked seed plants. They are an ancient line of coniferous trees that evolved over 200 million years ago.
Most cypress trees belong to the Cupressus genus, with 22 currently accepted species worldwide.
Other genera are also called cypress, including Hesperocyparis (17 species), Taxodium (2 species), Fitzroya (1 species), and Chamaecyparis (5 species). To add extra confusion, some of these are also called cedars.
Learning their identifying features will help you distinguish all the different types of cypress trees.
Sometimes redwoods, sequoia (Sequoia, Metasequoia, Sequoiadendron), and false cedars (Thuja, Cryptomeria) are also called cypress, but I discuss those in separate articles on redwoods and cedar trees.
Cypress trees are found mostly in warm temperate regions in the northern hemisphere, but they also grow in Mediterranean climates, the southern hemisphere, and cool temperate regions.
Cypress Tree Identification (With Photos)
Identifying Cypress Trees by Their Scale-Like Leaves
Most cypresses are evergreen trees with leaves that remain all year, but a few are deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the winter.
Cypress leaves are usually scale-like and four-ranked, think of it as four leaves per layer with two facial leaves and two lateral leaves arranged in opposite pairs at right angles to the other pair.
Their scale-like leaves are imbricate, meaning they overlap each other so that some of the leaves are outside the others and others are under on one or both of their sides. They are arranged in flattened or sometimes rounded shoots.
Whether the facial or lateral leaves are all roughly the same size or if one set is longer or larger than the other can also help to identify cypress trees at the species level. As can the tip of the leaves, whether they are acute (angled), sharp-pointed, obtuse (wide-angled), or blunt (no angle). The picture below is for needle-like leaves, but the same terminology applies to the tip or apex of a scale-like leaf.
To identify cypress trees with scale-like leaves, you often need to use a combination of tools, including leaf morphology, stomata, bark, tree habit, and cones.
Identifying Cypress From Other Trees With Scale-Like Leaves
The closely related juniper trees have variable leaves. Some junipers have awl-shaped leaves that are easier to distinguish from cypress, while others have scale-like leaves that tend to be four-ranked, look quite similar, or may appear more delicate and intricate-looking. When similar-looking, junipers can be distinguished by their berry-like seed cones (see cones below).
Cypress trees are often confused with the related North American false cedars (Thuja spp) that have very similar scale-like leaves in flattened shoots. They can often be differentiated by the fact that Thuja typically has visible whitish bands of stomata on the lower side, usually in the shape of a butterfly, while cypress trees often have no visible bands, or they have ‘X’ or ‘Y’ shaped bands (see stomata below).
Rarely, some cypress trees (of the Chamaecyparis genus) also have butterfly-shaped stomatal bands, in which case the egg-shaped hooked seed cones (see cones below) in clusters in the Thuja genus can usually differentiate the two.
Identifying Cypress With Needle-Like Leaves
On the other hand, the Bald Cypresses have needle-like leaves that resemble fir trees more than the other cypress trees. But their deciduous needle-like leaves are arranged alternately on green deciduous twigs rather than spirally as in the evergreen true and Douglas Firs.
Identifying Cypress Trees by Stomata
Stomata are small pores or openings in the leaf surfaces that allow for gas exchange with the atmosphere, which is necessary for photosynthesis. These pores are often coated with wax, and in many conifer trees, these produce visible lines or bands of multiple thin lines that can be used to help identify them at both the genus and the species level.
Many cypress trees have no visible stomatal lines on their leaves. They tend to have low-density inconspicuous stomata as an adaptation to prevent water loss, having evolved more in warm temperate and Mediterranean climates than the cool climates of other conifers.
Some cypresses have stomatal bands in characteristic shapes, like an ‘X’ or a ‘Y’ on their lower sides.
Western Red Cedar looks very similar to cypress trees with their flattened sprays of scale-like leaves. On Western Red Cedar, however, you can see visible bands of stomata on the lower side of the leaves in the shape of little butterflies.
And to complicate it further, some cypress (of the Chamaecyparis genus) have butterfly-like bands similar to Thuja. In that case, you will need to rely on cones or other features to assist in their identification.
Identifying Cypress Trees by Seed Cones
Cypress trees are mostly monoecious, with separate male and female cones found on the same tree. Only a few rare exceptions are dioecious trees with separate male and female trees. They are never bisexual, with male and female reproductive parts found in the same cone.
Seed cones usually mature and release their seeds in about 24 months, but some species mature in 8-18 months. Some species have serotinous cones adapted to forest fires, holding their seeds for years until a forest fire melts their resin and allows them to open up. This allows them to colonize the newly bare ground, while others are deciduous and open releasing the seeds at maturity.
Seed cones are typically solitary, often terminal or nearly terminal, 0.3 – 1.6” long, and usually rounded but sometimes egg-shaped or ellipsoid. They are typically green when young and often resemble lumpy berries but turn brown, woodier, and often resinous as they mature.
Hesperocyparis is distinguished by having very woody cones that are typically serotinous and persist on older branches until they are opened by fire.
False cedars of the Thuja genus have cones that are also woodier than most cypress cones, they are often found in clusters in the middle part of lateral branches, they are ellipsoid to egg-shaped but never rounded, and they usually have 2 – 4 pairs of scales that each have small but sharp protruding points (umbos).
On the other hand, the cones of junipers are almost always fleshy and resinous and are often various shades of blue, purple, or whitish and look just like berries. However, botanically speaking, they are not berries but cones with merged fleshy scales.
Identifying Cypress Trees by Seed Cone Scales
Most cypress tree cones have 4 – 14 scales (Cupressus spp) or 8 – 14 scales (Chamaecyparis spp), often arranged in opposite pairs with each succeeding pair at right angles to the pairs below and above them (decussate). Sometimes the number of scales can be a very useful tool in helping identify different types of cypress trees.
Some seed cone scales have characteristic shapes to their umbos, a protuberance on the end of the scales. They may be flat, blunt, rounded, or sometimes sharp-pointed. Sometimes this can help identify the different types of cypress trees.
Identifying Cypress Trees by Seeds
Each fertile scale (often only some of the scales are fertile) bears 1 – 20 seeds (Cupressus), 1 – 4 seeds (Chamaecyparis), or numerous seeds (Hesperocyparis). The seeds are small, typically from 0.08 – 0.28” long, and are typically winged (size includes the wings).
Some seeds are not winged, and some have narrow wings, while others have wide wings. How many seeds and whether they are winged can also sometimes be used to assist in identification. However, since they can take up to two years to mature, we typically have to rely on other morphological features unless the seeds are present and mature.
Identifying Cypress Trees by Pollen Cones
Pollen cones are usually terminal, usually very small (0.08 – 0.3” long), and look like colorful tips on the leaf shoots that are typically yellowish to orangish in color. Due to their small size and relative uniformity across the family, other than occasional variations in color and/or size, they are not often used to aid identification.
Identifying Cypress Trees by Tree Habit
Cypress are small shrubs to tall trees. They may have irregular or flattened crowns or grow tall with columnar, conical, pyramidal, or weeping crowns. Sometimes the shape of the crown can be a useful identification technique when used in conjunction with other tools.
Identifying Cypress Trees by Branch Growth
Cypress branches may grow horizontally, ascend, descend, spread, or some combination of those. This can also be used to aid in the identification of cypress trees.
Their twigs are often, but not always, pendulous and arranged in pinnate pairs. Sometimes they are arranged at right angles to each other and not in a plane. These are also useful tools that can aid in identification.
Identifying Cypress Trees by Bark
The bark of cypress trees across the genera tends to be reddish-brown and fibrous when mature, peeling vertically in thin or sometimes wide strips. This can be useful in helping to identify a tree as a cypress. However, you need to combine this feature with other identification tools since false cedars, junipers, and other trees can also have reddish-brown fibrous bark.
Also, in some cypress trees, the bark can be gray, smooth, scaly, or grooved and checked into rectangular or square plates. These variations can sometimes help to determine the different types of cypress species.
14 Different Types of Cypress Trees & Their Identifying Features
1. Gowan Cypress (Hesperocyparis goveniana or Cupressus goveniana)
Gowan Cypress has been reclassified as Hesperocyparis goveniana, but, for extra confusion, plant authorities still list both names as accepted.
They’re shrubs or small trees whose height varies considerably with environmental conditions. It has an open to dense rounded to columnar crown and smooth gray bark becoming rough and fibrous with age.
Twigs are arranged at right angles to each other (decussate), they’re cylindrical but the ultimate ones become four-sided and slender (1 mm).
Leaves are scale-like, green, not glaucous, without conspicuous glands, and have acute tips.
Seed cones are grayish-brown, not glaucous, rounded, 0.4 – 1” long, with 3 – 5 pairs of scales with an umbo that is nearly flat, and each fertile scale has numerous small seeds.
Other Common Names: California Cypress
Identifying Features: Gowan Cypress is a shrub or small tree with grayish fibrous bark and scale-like leaves on twigs arranged at right angles (decussate), with ultimate twigs slender (1 mm) and four-sided, plus grayish-brown 0.4 – 1” roundish seed cones with 3 – 5 pairs of scales with umbos that are nearly flat when mature. It can be differentiated from the Monterey Cypress, which is another narrow endemic from the same region, by its smaller size, shorter scale-like leaves, and smaller seed cones with 3 – 5 scales instead of 6 – 14.
Native Area: Narrow micro endemic of Monterey County, California
USDA Growing Zones: 8 – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 1 – 33 ft (to 164 ft), 1 – 12 ft spread
2. Nootka Cypress (Cupressus nootkatensis or Callitropsis nootkatensis)
They’re unusually tall and long-lived for a cypress, often with descending branches and fibrous reddish-brown to grayish-brown bark.
Twigs are pinnately arranged, long and pendulous, and the terminal twigs are four-sided.
Yellowish or bluish-green scale-like leaves are four-ranked, stout, small, sometimes with circular glands, no white stomatal lines, a rounded to often very sharp-pointed tip, and the bases of facial leaves are often overlapped by the tips of the facial leaves below.
Seed cones are small, 0.3 – 0.5”, rounded, with small spiky umbos, whitish-green glaucous becoming dark reddish-brown and resinous, with 4 – 6 scales and an open tip with a central columella between the top scales. Usually, only 2 scales are fertile with 2 – 4 seeds.
It is not considered invasive anywhere.
Other Common Names: Yellow Cedar, Yellow Cypress, Alaska Cedar, Alaska Yellow Cedar, Nootka Falsecypress, Nootka Cedar
Identifying Features: Nootka cypress is a tall tree with descending branches, fibrous reddish-brown to grayish-brown bark, long pendulous twigs, yellowish to bluish-green scale-like leaves without visible stomata, and small 0.3 – 0.5” rounded, somewhat spiky, whitish-green glaucous cones becoming dark reddish brown and resinous. Often confused with Western Red Cedar, it can be differentiated by its nearly round seed cones, four-sided terminal twigs, and leaf sprays with less lateral shoots. Sometimes it is mistaken for Lawson Cypress, but that one has thick vertically grooved bark, pungent (parsley-like scented) scale-like leaves with white stomatal bands on the lower surfaces, and pollen cones with bright red pollen sacs instead of the typical yellow.
Native Area: Pacific Northwest coast from southeast Alaska south through British Columbia, Canada through Washington to central Oregon
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 100 ft (to 200 ft) tall, 20 – 30 ft spread
3. Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)
Italian Cypress is a tall, characteristically very narrowly cylindrical or columnar tree with ascending or horizontally spreading branches and grayish-brown shallowly grooved bark.
Twigs are dark green, not arranged in a plane, and the terminal ones are slender (1 mm) and four-sided.
Leaves are densely appressed and four-ranked, dark green, not glaucous, egg-shaped, small (0.5 – 1 mm), ridged on the lower side without conspicuous glands, and have an obtuse or somewhat acute tip that is not sharp-pointed.
Pollen cones are relatively large at 0.16 – 0.3” long.
Seed cones are yellowish-gray when mature, somewhat rounded to ellipsoid, and relatively large at 1 – 1.6” long, with 8 – 14 cone scales. Each fertile scale has 8-20 narrow, brown, and winged seeds.
Best grown in well-drained sandy loams in full sun with medium to moderate moisture. Tolerates some drought once established.
It is not considered invasive anywhere in North America.
Other Common Names: Mediterranean Cypress, Tuscan Cypress, Persian Cypress, Pencil Pine
Identifying Features: Italian Cypress is a tall, characteristically very narrowly cylindrical, or columnar tree with slender four-sided terminal twigs, densely appressed four-ranked dark green leaves that are not glaucous and are ridged on the lower surface, and relatively large 1 – 1.6” long ellipsoid to almost rounded yellowish-gray seed cones with 8 – 14 cone scales. It is sometimes confused with Chinese Arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis), which has smaller cones (⅝ – 1”) that have a very prominent hooked umbo and their seeds have no wings, or with Monterey Cypress, which has similar-sized but rounded to oblong seed cones that are brown, and it does not usually grow with such a narrow crown.
Native Area: Eastern Mediterranean region, introduced early on into the western Mediterranean and the Middle East
USDA Growing Zones: 7 – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 70 ft (to 100 ft) tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
4. Arizona Cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica/Cupressus arizonica)
They are medium-sized trees with a conical crown becoming broadly columnar with age with dense and stout ascending branches. Twigs are decussate, not in a plane, relatively thick (1 – 2 mm), and ultimately four-sided.
The bark is smooth when young but may become rough, grooved, and fibrous with age.
Leaves are bluish-green, often glaucous, egg-shaped with an acute tip, and ridged on the lower side with conspicuous resin-exuding glands.
Seed cones are gray or brown, often glaucous initially, rounded or oblong, 0.8 – 1.2” long, and have 6 – 8 cone scales that are smooth or have resin blisters. Sometimes scales have erect conical umbos to 0.16” tall on the top scales.
Each fertile scale has numerous approximately 0.2” tan to brown seeds.
Other Common Names: Roughbark Arizona Cypress, or in Spanish Sabino, Cedro, Ciprés, Táscate
Identifying Features: Arizona Cypress are medium-sized trees with a conical crown becoming broadly columnar with dense, stout ascending branches, relatively thick decussate twigs that are four-sided terminally, characteristic bluish-green often glaucous leaves with resin exuded from glands on the lower surface and relatively large 0.8 – 1.2” long often glaucous seed cones with 6 – 8 cone scales that may have resin blisters and/or erect conical umbos to 0.16” long on the top scales. It is mostly mistaken for the Smooth Arizona Cypress (Hesperocyparis glabra), but that one has very smooth, non-furrowed gray, pinkish, or reddish bark.
Native Area: Southwestern USA with disjunct populations in West Texas and southern California, plus northern Mexico south to Durango and Zacatecas
USDA Growing Zones: 6 – 9
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 80 ft tall, 20 – 30 ft spread
5. Monterey Cypress (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa or Cupressus macrocarpa)
Monterey Cypress is often called Cupressus macrocarpa, but plant authorities have renamed it Hesperocyparis, though both are still listed as accepted.
They’re medium-sized trees with broad trunks and an irregular to flattened crown altered by winds in their native habitat, but they can grow tall and uniform with horizontally spreading branches.
Scale-like leaves are relatively long (0.08 – 0.2” long) and grow in dense, bright green rounded, not flattened shoots and release a lemon scent when crushed.
Seed cones are green maturing to brown, rounded to oblong, and relatively large at 0.8 – 1.6” long with 6 – 14 scales.
A full sun lover, this plant is easily grown in moist, well-drained soils.
Its population, although stable, is considered Vulnerable due to being a narrow microendemic species.
It has been spreading outside of cultivation in California outside its limited native range and may have moderate invasive potential.
Other Common Names: Western Cypress
Identifying Features: Monterey Cypress are medium-sized trees with horizontally spreading branches, bright green, relatively long 0.08 – 0.2” scale-like leaves with a lemony aroma, and relatively large 0.8 – 1.6” rounded to oblong seed cones that are green and mature to brown and have 6 – 14 seed scales. It is mostly confused with Sargeant’s Cypress (Cupressus sargentii), a narrow endemic of Mendocino County, but that one often has glaucous leaves, smaller seed cones under 1” with scattered resin blisters, and 6 – 8 scales or with Italian Cypress that has a very narrow crown, scale-like leaves that are ridged on the lower surface and its similar-sized seed cones are yellowish-gray with instead of brown.
Native Area: A narrow microendemic with only two populations located near Carmel, California, at Cypress Point in Pebble Beach and Point Lobos
USDA Growing Zones: 7 – 11
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 70 ft (to 133 ft) tall, 20 – 80 ft spread
6. Bhutan Cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana)
Bhutan Cypress is a medium-sized to large tree with ascending branches, a thick trunk, and bark that starts out smooth, exfoliating in thin strips, but becomes fibrous and shredding red-brown with purple-brown inner bark with age.
The leaves grow in strongly pendulous and drooping sprays of slender, blue-green, flattened shoots of scale-like, four-ranked, overlapping, closely appressed leaves. Juvenile leaves begin as needle-like until age five, when they mature to become more scale-like.
Seed cones are egg-shaped to rounded, 0.4 – 0.83” long, and dark green becoming dark brown when mature. They have 8 – 12 scales, and their bracts have protruding tips. Each fertile scale has about 10 small seeds per scale.
It is not considered invasive anywhere in North America.
Their population is considered Near Threatened, but little is known about its status in the wild.
Other Common Names: Kashmir Cypress, Weeping Cypress
Identifying Features: The Bhutan Cypress has characteristic blue-green scale-like four-ranked overlapping appressed leaves that hang in strongly pendulous flattened sprays and egg-shaped to rounded 0.4 – 0.83” long dark green (maturing to dark brown) seed cones with 8 – 12 scales with bracts with protruding tips. It can be differentiated from the Chinese Weeping Cypress, which also has strongly pendulous sprays of scale-like leaves, but their leaves are a much lighter green to gray-green, and their seed cones are on short stalks (petioles) and have five-angled scales.
Native Area: Eastern Himalayas in Bhutan and northeast India
USDA Growing Zones: 9 (8 with protection) – 11
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 60 ft (to 150 ft) tall, 15 – 20 ft spread
7. Chinese Weeping Cypress (Cupressus funebris)
Chinese Weeping Cypress has unique light green weeping leaves, and it makes a good houseplant in colder climates.
They are medium-sized to large trees with weeping crowns and branches that are more or less horizontal and ascending, with slender (1 mm), flattened pendulous twigs.
Leaves are light green or gray-green, scale-like, densely appressed, and have sharp-pointed tips. Facial leaves have a linear gland on their lower surface and are ridged where they overlap at their bases, while lateral leaves are folded slightly.
Juvenile leaves, lasting several years, are more needle-like, blue-green, 0.16 – 0.28” long, in whorls of two or four.
Seed cones are green, becoming dark brown, rounded, bumpy, 0.3 – 0.6”, and have short stalks. They have 6 – 8(-12) five-angled scales, and each fertile scale has 3-5(6) small light brown, flattened seeds.
It has low invasive potential and is not invasive in North America.
Other Common Names: Weeping Cypress, Mourning Cypress, Bai Mu (Chinese)
Identifying Features: Chinese Weeping Cypress is a medium-sized tree with ascending branches but pendulous twigs giving it a weeping appearance. The scale-like leaves are characteristic light green to gray-green, densely appressed, have sharp-pointed tips, facial leaves are ridged and have glands on their lower sides, and their seed cones are rounded, bumpy, 0.3 – 0.6” on short petioles and have 6 – 8(-12) five-angled scales that also help identify them. It can be differentiated by the Bhutan Cypress, which has blue-green instead of gray-green weeping leaves and larger rounded or egg-shaped seed cones that have bracts with protruding tips.
Native Area: Southwestern and central China, northern Vietnam
USDA Growing Zones: 7 – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 115 ft tall, 15 – 25 ft spread
8. Leyland Cypress (Cupressus x leylandii or Cuprocyparis leylandii)
Leyland Cypress is a popular ornamental tree in North America for its fast growth (2 – 4 ft per year in early years), ability to thrive in poor soils, and its tolerance of both full sun and partial shade. It is used mainly for hedges and screens, where its rapid growth provides quick privacy.
It is a cultivated and usually sterile hybrid of the Monterey Cypress (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa) and Nootka Cypress (Cupressus nootkatensis), largely propagated by cuttings.
This makes it lack the ability to be invasive.
Since it is not a natural hybrid, it is described by numerous Latin names.
Being a hybrid, its morphological characteristics will be somewhere between its parent strains.
It is a relatively tall cypress, reaching 60 – 70 ft unless pruned as a hedge, etc. It has a dense, broad-columnar to narrow-pyramidal growth habit and rich, vibrant green to yellowish-green scale-like leaves.
Other Common Names: Leyland Hedge
Identifying Features: Leyland Cypress is a hybrid of the Monterey and Nootka Cypress and has a broad columnar to narrowly pyramidal habit with rich green to yellowish-green scale-like leaves, and is usually sterile, rarely producing cones and producing infertile ones when it does. This makes it more difficult to identify, so look for characteristics that are in between the parent strains. It can be differentiated from Nootka Cypress, which has more pendulous leaves and often descending branches, and from the Monterey Cypress, which never has yellowish-green leaves and typically has a broader crown and stouter trunk.
Native Area: N/A
USDA Growing Zones: 6 (5 with protection) – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 70 ft tall, 10 – 15 ft spread
9. Lawson Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)
Lawson Cypress is a tall endemic tree of the Klamath Mountains with a thick trunk and thick (6 – 10” at base) reddish-brown bark with vertical grooves and broad, rounded ridges.
The twigs are mostly pinnately arranged in flattened sprays.
Leaves are scale-like, pungent parsley-like scented, usually with linear to circular glands on the lower surface, angled to sharp-pointed tips, and the lower surfaces have X-shaped white stomatal bands and are sometimes glaucous blue-green.
Pollen cones are terminal and dark brown with characteristic bright red pollen sacs.
Seed cones are purplish to reddish-brown, maturing in one year, glaucous, rounded, and 0.3 – 0.5” with 5 – 9 scales.
Each fertile scale has 2 – 4 seeds with wings as wide or wider than the seeds.
It typically grows in valleys along streams where it tolerates some shade and wind but not ocean winds.
It is Near Threatened, but its population is increasing.
Other Common Names: Port Orford Cedar, Lawson Falsecypress
Identifying Features: Lawson Cypress is a tall tree with thick vertically grooved bark, pungent (parsley-like scented) scale-like leaves with angled to sharp-pointed tips, linear to circular glands, and X-shaped white stomatal bands on the lower surfaces, purplish to reddish-brown rounded, glaucous seed cones with 5 – 9 scales with broad-winged seeds, and their terminal pollen cones have bright red pollen sacs. It is most often confused with Western Red Cedar, which it closely resembles, but that one has egg-shaped woody seed cones that are sharp-pointed and not glaucous, and its leaves do not have the same parsley-like scent.
Native Area: Oregon and northwestern California in the Klamath Mountains up to 4900 ft
USDA Growing Zones: 5 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 110 – 165 ft tall, 13 – 25 ft spread
10. Japanese Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa)
Japanese Cypress is extremely popular in north temperate regions for its high-quality timber and as ornamentals, with numerous cultivars available.
They are fairly tall trees with wide trunks, narrowly pyramidal or conical crowns, drooping to pendulous branches that curl at their ends, and light reddish-brown fibrous bark.
Leaves are four-ranked, with the two lateral leaves much larger than the facials, dark green above, and light green and often glaucous below with white “Y” shaped stomatal patterns. The tip is typically blunt, but sometimes the tip of the lateral leaves is incurved, they have no resin glands, and the terminal leaves are typically ridged on the lower surface.
Seed cones are reddish-brown when ripe, rounded, 0.4 – 0.6”, with 8 – 10 scales.
Each fertile scale has 2 – 5 reddish-brown, somewhat rounded, flattened, and winged seeds.
In its native range, it is Near Threatened, and its population stability is unknown.
Other Common Names: Hinoki Cypress, Hinoki Falsecypress, Hinoki or Finuchi (Japanese)
Identifying Features: Japanese Cypress are tall trees with a narrow pyramidal or conical crown, pendulous branches, light reddish-brown fibrous bark, four-ranked leaves with two lateral leaves noticeably larger than the facials, dark green above and yellowish or light green and glaucous below with a “Y” stomatal pattern, and they have reddish-brown 0.4 – 0.6” rounded seed cones with 8 – 10 scales. The related Sawara Cypress can be readily distinguished by its smaller cones and more sharply pointed leaf tips, and the Taiwanese Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa var formosana) can be differentiated by its smaller cones (0.24 – 0.35”) with smaller scales and leaves with an acute slightly pointed tip.
Native Area: Central Japan
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 75 ft (to 120 ft) tall, 10 – 25 ft spread
11. Sawara Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera)
Sawara Cypress are typically tall trees, though some may remain quite short. They have a pyramidal crown, branches that spread horizontally, and twigs that are pendulous or drooping.
Leaves are scale-like and four-ranked, dark green to light green, sometimes with yellowish new growth, butterfly-shaped white stomatal bands on the lower surface, and a glaucous patch at the base. They have a slender, free, pointed tip, facial leaves have a small gland on the lower side, and the lateral leaves are slightly longer than facial ones.
Seed cones are dark brown, rounded, about pea-sized, and have 10 – 12 scales.
Each fertile scale has 1 – 2 small seeds with wings that are larger than the seeds themselves.
Grows well in full sun to partial shade in acidic to neutral soil.
It has little invasive potential and has not naturalized in North America.
Other Common Names: Sawara (Japanese)
Identifying Features: Sawara Cypress are tall trees with a pyramidal crown, pendulous twigs, dark brown pea-sized seed cones with 10 – 12 scales, plus four-ranked leaves with butterfly-shaped stomatal patterns on the lower surface, glands on the lower facial leaves, and lateral leaves that are slightly longer than the facials. The related Formosan Cypress (Chamaecyparis formosensis) differs in having longer ovoid cones with 10–16 scales, and the Japanese Cypress has blunt tips on its leaves and Y rather than butterfly-shaped stomata. It is occasionally confused with cultivars of Lawson Cypress, but those ones seldom have sharply pointed tips to their leaves, and its lateral leaves are not longer than the facial leaves.
Native Area: Central and southern Japan, on Honshū and Kyūshū Islands
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 70 ft (to 165 ft) tall, 10 – 25 ft spread
12. Russian Cypress (Microbiota decussata)
Russian or Siberian Cypress is a low-growing to prostrate shrub that always grows much wider than it does tall.
Leaves form in flattened sprays of bright green scale-like leaves that fade to bronze-purple in winter.
Their seed cones are among the smallest of any conifer at only 0.08 – 0.12” long. They are green, ripening to brown in about eight months, and they have four scales in two opposite pairs.
The seeds are small and have no wings, and there is usually only one seed per cone.
It is a popular ornamental evergreen groundcover in gardens and parks appreciated for its cold and drought tolerance and has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.
It has not naturalized in North America and is believed to have low invasive potential.
In its native habitat, it grows above the timberline on cold bald mountain peaks.
Other Common Names: Siberian Cypress, Siberian Carpet Cypress, Russian Arbor-vitae
Identifying Features: Russian or Siberian Cypress is a low-growing to prostrate shrub up to only 2 ft tall that always grows much wider than it does tall, it has bright green scale-like leaves in flattened sprays that fade to a bronze-purple color in winter, and has some of the smallest seed cones of any conifer at only 0.08 – 0.12” long with four scales and typically only one unwinged seed per cone. Few cypresses grow this short, making it and its cultivars easy to recognize. However, it is sometimes confused with Juniper shrubs with scale-like leaves, but those can readily be differentiated by their blue, purple, or white berry-like mature seed cones.
Native Area: Sikhote-Alin mountains of far-eastern Russia
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 0.5 – 2 ft tall, 6.6 – 16.4 ft spread
13. Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)
The Bald Cypress is one of the few deciduous trees of the family that lose its leaves every winter.
They’re tall trees with pyramidal to columnar crowns and more or less horizontally spreading branches and spirally arranged twigs often draped with Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides).
They have a broad trunk that is often buttressed (widened at the base) and may develop pneumatophores, unique aerial roots that grow under swampy conditions to allow the roots better gas exchange with the atmosphere.
It has thin fibrous red-brown or gray-brown bark with narrow grooves and ridges.
Leaves are needle-like, flattened, 0.4 – 0.8”, thin (1 – 2 mm), arranged alternately on twigs, and are often twisted at the base.
Seed cones are green maturing to gray-brown, rounded, very bumpy, 0.5 – 1.4” long with 9 – 15 four-sided scales with two triangle-shaped seeds per scale.
It grows on saturated and seasonally inundated soils.
Other Common Names: Yellow Cypress, Red Cypress, Gulf Cypress, Tidewater Red Cypress, White Cypress
Identifying Features: Bald Cypress is easy to identify when growing in saturated soils and having a buttressed trunk and pneumatophores, and additionally by its linear, flattened 0.4 – 0.8” long thin (1 – 2 mm) needle-like deciduous leaves that are often twisted at the base, and its gray-brown 0.5 – 1.4” long rounded bumpy seed cones with 9 – 15 four-sided scales. The Pond Cypress is very similar, and though often described as its own species, it’s actually a botanical variety of Bald Cypress that can be exceptionally difficult to differentiate without mature specimens other than the fact that the needle-shaped leaves of the Pond Cypress are typically longer and point upwards instead of being more flattened.
Native Area: USA from Delaware south to Florida along the Atlantic coast, east to southern Illinois, Oklahoma, and southeast Texas
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 70 ft (to 120 ft) tall, 25 – 35 ft spread
14. Patagonian Cypress (Fitzroya cupressoides)
The Patagonia Cypress is a monotypic Fitzroya species native to the temperate rainforests of the Andes.
It’s a slow-growing, long-lived tree and the largest in South America, where it used to form extensive forests before extensive logging during colonization.
It has a self-pruning tall rounded pyramidal crown with very thick and deeply grooved light reddish-brown to gray-brown fibrous bark.
The needle-like leaves are 0.12 – 0.24” long, in whorls of three, with two white stomatal lines. With maturity, they become egg-shaped and scale-like.
They’re dioecious, with separate male and female trees.
Seed cones are rounded, 0.24 – 0.31”, opening flat to 0.5” across with nine scales in three whorls of three and 2-3 winged seeds on each of the three central scales.
It hasn’t naturalized in North America and has low invasive potential.
It’s Endangered in its native habitat, and its population is decreasing.
Other Common Names: Alerce (“larch” in Spanish)
Identifying Features: The tall rounded pyramidal crown without lower branches and thick reddish-brown to gray-brown fibrous and deeply grooved bark, plus needle-like leaves in whorls of three that become egg-shaped and scale-like with age, will help identify the Patagonian Cypress. It can further be distinguished by being a dioecious tree with rounded 0.24 – 0.31” seed cones on female trees that open flat to 0.5” across with nine scales in three whorls of three and 2-3 winged seeds on each of the three central scales. It is most often mistaken for the Cordilleran Cypress (Austrocedrus chilensis), another endemic monotypic cypress genus of the Andes, but that one has more typical scale-like leaves and seed cones with four scales, including two large fertile and two small sterile ones.
Native Area: Andes mountains of southern Chile and Argentina around 40° S latitude
USDA Growing Zones: 7 – 10
Average Size at Maturity: 35 – 85 ft (to 230 ft) tall, 15 – 25 ft spread
Growing Cypress Trees in Your Garden
Growing cypress trees can be very rewarding for their beauty and elegance year-round as well as their incredibly low maintenance once established. If you have decided to grow a cypress tree, it is important to do some research to ensure success.
In addition to understanding the USDA Planting Zones, you must check your chosen tree’s soil, light, and moisture requirements and compare that to your site. Check out How to Pick A Tree For Your Yard for more information on choosing the right tree for the right spot in your yard.
Most cypress trees are adapted to warm temperate or Mediterranean climates and will do more poorly in cold climates than other types of conifer trees. Although some, like the Russian Cypress, will do very well in cold or warm climates.
Most cypress trees prefer growing in full sun, but some species will tolerate partial (but not full) shade.
They typically grow well in most soil types, provided they are well-drained. However, they generally do best in slightly acidic to neutral soils. Some, like the Taxodium genus, grow in swamps and can be planted right next to the water where seasonal inundation occurs.
Cypress trees, generally speaking, tend to have very low invasive potential, making them a safer landscape choice than certain other types of trees, even when not native to your area.
Typically you should always try to choose species native to your area to enhance biodiversity and wildlife values. Wherever native cypress trees are available, I strongly encourage you to plant them. However, none of the non-native species above have been reported as having escaped cultivation and naturalized anywhere in North America at this time.
Stunning Cypress Trees
The Understudied Cypress Family
Cypress trees are a beautiful family of conifers that have been relatively ignored by scientists working with trees, at least compared to the Pinaceae family. This is because they are slow growing, and only a small number of species are of importance to the lumber industry, where the majority of research funding is focused.
As a result, the entire family has undergone some significant changes in recent years, now that scientists have begun working with them more to understand their evolutionary history. This includes recent taxonomic changes yet to be widely adopted across both academic and non-academic circles.
To make it extra confusing several cypress species even have more than one currently accepted name listed on World Flora Online, something I had never seen before in all my scientific research.
Some species, like the Nootka Cypress, have undergone numerous name changes and are still undergoing revision as scientists decide which genus it belongs to or whether it warrants their own monotypic genus, so their name may change yet again in the coming years.
Still, they are a fascinating group of trees, albeit somewhat misunderstood.
Nootka Cypress trees are likely the most ancient cypress trees there are and some of the oldest trees on the planet.
I had the pleasure of seeing some of these majestic beauties up close and personal on numerous occasions in my younger years because I grew up at the base of the Caren Range mountains on the west coast of British Columbia, where remnants of this ancient forest still exist today.
One specimen was confirmed at 1,834 years old. Still more trees, still living, are believed to be even older, with some estimates up to 3000 years. While not as huge as the Redwoods or Sequoias, they still get very large and are an incredibly impressive site to see.
Another equally interesting and ancient cypress is the Saharan Cypress, Cupressus dupreziana, which is one of the rarest and most endangered trees in the world.
Currently, only 233 individuals remain in the wild, where they live in a relict forest in the Saharan desert of southeast Algeria in an otherwise essentially barren environment. It is one of the most drought-resistant tree species known to exist.
It is threatened because nomadic livestock typically eats the seedlings, and only mature or ‘over-mature’ specimens remain, with some believed to be 2000 years old. They are Endangered, and if current conditions do not change or current human attempts to assist in their regeneration do not succeed, they will, without a doubt, go extinct.
Cypress wood has been highly valued through the centuries, even though only a few species grow large enough to create commercially valuable lumber. Its longevity and resistance to rot have made it a very sought-after material. Canoes and water pipes were some of the things people made with them hundreds of years ago.
Later on, it was widely used to make roofing shingles, railroad ties, ladders, fence posts, furniture, and siding. Today, certain cypress species are still harvested for lumber, although about 47% of this slow-growing family is chipped and sold as mulch.
Bald cypresses have very important roles in the wild. Since they tend to grow along rivers and in wetlands, they are excellent at soaking up floodwaters and preventing erosion. They also trap pollutants and prevent them from spreading. Protecting our remaining cypress swamps will be critical in future flood mitigation planning.
Frogs, toads, and salamanders use Bald Cypress swamps as breeding grounds.
Long-lived large forest cypresses provide important cover for deer, bears, squirrels, and more. They also provide critical nesting sites for numerous squirrels and forest birds, including old-growth dependant species.
In warmer temperate and subtropical climates where the cypress tends to be smaller, they still provide important wildlife values. Their dense foliage provides shelter for small nesting birds when many broadleaved deciduous trees are still in bud. They also provide critical roosting sites for migrating birds and shelter for small mammals and reptiles.
Small mammals and birds routinely feed on the small but often numerous and nutritious seeds.
There you have it, now you have learned so much more about this fascinating albeit misunderstood group of trees and shrubs.
Now you can use your newfound skills to go out and identify the cultivated or even rare wild cypresses that may grow in your region. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!
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Lyrae grew up in the forests of BC, Canada, where she got a BSc. in Environmental Sciences.
Her whole life, she has loved studying plants, from the tiniest flowers to the most massive trees.
She is currently researching native plants of North America and spends her time traveling, hiking, documenting, and writing.
When not researching, she is homeschooling her brilliant autistic son, who travels with her and benefits from a unique hands-on education about the environment around him.