What Is a Cypress Tree?

By Paula Swenson
What Is a Cypress Tree?
images courtesy of Forest and Kim Starr

A cypress tree may be one of several types of tree. There is the pond cypress, bald cypress, Monterey cypress and funerary cypress, but the tree most often referred to simply as cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) is a coniferous, flame-shaped tree with flat, frondlike sprays of leaves. Also known as an Italian or Mediterranean cypress, the tree originated in Persia and Syria.

History

The Etruscans were fascinated by the evergreen nature of the cypress, retaining its leaves when all other trees were bare. They believed the tree had supernatural connections and put the plant around their graveyards. The cypress wood is quite resinous and strong in highly fragrant essential oils. These properties cause it to decompose very slowly, making it an ideal wood for coffins and sarcophagi. The Persian, Syrians and Turks all used the cypress for coffins and the trees were historically planted at both the head and foot of Muslim graves.

Appearance

The cypress prefers a sunny climate and can grow to be 40 to 60 feet tall. The foliage is dark green and the cypress shows very little trunk below the starting branches. Cypress trees tend to have a more or less identical appearance, and are often planted in pairs beside doorways or gates, or in long rows at the edges of fields or lanes. The island of Cyprus is one of the places where the tree is native.

Cypress Wood

Cypress wood was used by the Egyptians for mummy cases because of its hardness and resinous properties, according to Herodotus. Thucydides wrote that cypress wood was reserved to contain the ashes of Greeks who died in service to their country. Another famous Greek, Plato, chose to have his code of laws inscribed into cypress, saying it was more durable than brass. The cypress was often used for rafters, joists and door posts, as well as props for grapevines, being resistant to rotting. At one time in the Mediterranean, a cypress grove was considered a valuable dowry for a daughter.

Swamp Cypress

The bald cypress and the pond cypress are both wetland trees, native to the bayous and river country of the southern United States. They grow much taller and broader than the Italian or Monterey cypresses. In their native habitats they are often festooned with Spanish moss. The bald cypress is the more adaptable of the two, and can be successfully grown in sandy loam as far north as southern Canada. The bald cypress is so named because it is the only deciduous cypress, losing its needlelike leaves in the winter.

Monterey Cypress

Monterey cypresses thrive on the seacoast. They are native to the Monterey Bay area of the California, but have been transplanted as far as Australia. They have an irregular silhouette that tends to be shaped by the coastal winds.

About the Author

Paula Swenson is a writer, artist and teacher. She has a degree in communication arts and has worked for NPR, NBC and the NEA. Swenson has been writing about art, business, travel and the English language for over 10 years. She also teaches English to business people and travelers from around the globe.