Lately, to survive in Panhandle landscapes, plants must be able to tolerate extremes. Summertime temperatures over 100 degrees F, hurricane force winds up to 150 mph, deluges of 1’ of rain in a single day, spring and fall month-long droughts, and the wild winter weather swings we’re experiencing right now. That’s quite a tall order for most plants to bear, however one of our best native trees handles all of the above conditions with relative ease, the stately Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). Though Bald Cypress primarily inhabits flatwood “dome” swamps and areas along the periodically flooded edges of waterways and other wetlands and most folks think of it as just “water tree”, the species is more than capable of handling anything Florida’s climate can throw at it, including thriving in home landscapes.
Bald Cypress in mid-January. Notice the excellent branching structure and the buttressed lower trunk. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
While there are lots of pretty trees in the Panhandle’s natural areas, not many of them possess the longevity, adaptability and well-behaved nature that makes Bald Cypress a great landscape tree. Bald Cypress are capable of living for hundreds of years and grow steadily to a normal landscape height of 50-60’, truly perfect for a specimen shade tree. The species also possesses a strong, wide spreading root system and a special above ground root adaptation, known colloquially as “knees”, that enable Cypress to reach deep to outlast droughts, grow unfazed even when the water rises, inhabit many different soil types, and resist hurricane force winds. While some homeowners object to the presence of Cypress knees in their yard, as the above ground structures can damage mower blades and make for uneven terrain, I’ve found an easy solution is to simply keep the area under the tree’s canopy mulched and forgo mowing there altogether. It looks nice and means less grass to cut!
Bald Cypress isn’t just a big, tough, adaptable tree, it’s also gorgeous. The bright green, finely cut, featherlike leaves give the trees an airy appearance in the spring and summer, nicely offsetting common coarse textured yard trees like Magnolia, Sycamore, Red Maple, and others. However, it is in the fall and winter when Bald Cypress really shines. Though Florida is not known for its fall foliage, Cypress is a notable exception! When the weather gets cool, Bald Cypress leaves transition from green to a yellowish orange before finally arriving at a beautifully unique, rusty, orange-brown color. There isn’t another species out there with a similar show. The foliage holds deep into winter before finally falling to reveal the attractive branching structure, sweeping buttressed lower trunk, and peely gray bark underneath, completing the four-season show.
Bald Cypress foliage on December 31, 2020. Photo courtesy Daniel Leonard.
In addition to being a near perfect landscape tree, Bald Cypress embodies much of what folks admire about life in the South, living the slow life near the water and enduring everything that’s thrown at it with grace and strength. Other than possibly the Live Oak, Bald Cypress is the tree that comes to mind first when I think about the tree that most represents where we come from. From their majestic, buttressed trunks, to the Spanish Moss that hangs loose from their limbs, to the slow, dark water than meanders nearby, the species is iconically Southern. When looking for an impossibly tough, adaptable, and attractive tree, one could do a whole lot worse than Bald Cypress.
If you have any questions about Bald Cypress, other landscape tree options, or any horticultural topic, please reach out to your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Happy gardening!
Carrie Stevenson is the Coastal Sustainability Agent for the UF/IFAS Escambia County Extension Office and has been with the organization almost 17 years. Her educational outreach programs focus on living sustainably within a vulnerable coastal ecosystem. She helps clientele better understand how to protect and preserve local landscape and water resources, wisely use our abundant rainfall and sunlight, and prepare and mitigate for flooding, coastal storms and climate impacts.
Growing up an avid reader and science junkie, a young Carrie aspired to find a career that allowed her to “be outdoors and wear jeans,” and in college sought to become a science writer. After graduation and a move to Pensacola, she found work as a field-based environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). While always more of an animal person than a plant person, her training with FDEP instilled a lifelong love of wetlands, as she spent her days tromping through the swamps, wet prairies, and creeks of northwest Florida. After joining UF IFAS Extension, she spent 6 years as a Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Agent before switching to Coastal Sustainability. Her expertise and articles focus on native plants, coastal habitats, wetlands, stormwater, and climate issues.
A native of Mississippi, Carrie has lived with her husband in Pensacola since 1999. Carrie earned her master’s degree in Biology/Coastal Zone Studies from the University of West Florida (Pensacola) and an undergraduate degree in Marine Science from Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama). A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, she enjoys biking, standup paddleboarding, and traveling to national parks with her family. She also has many favorite international outdoor experiences, ranging from hiking rainforests with an enthnobotanist in Belize to exploring the thorny scrub of South Africa. Carrie is the proud mom of an Eagle Scout and leads her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. She is a Fellow in the Natural Resources Leadership Institute (NRLI), past president of the Florida Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals (FANREP), and member of IMPACT 100 Pensacola Bay.
Master Gardeners demonstrate correct tree planting techniques.
Last week, we celebrated Florida’s Arbor Day. “What?” you may say—“Isn’t Arbor Day in the spring?” Well, yes and no. National Arbor Day is celebrated in the spring (April 24 this year), usually within a day or two of Earth Day. However, because of the wide range of climatic environments throughout the United States, each state has its own date based on ideal growing conditions. As it stands, Florida’s is the 3rd Friday in January, as we are situated so very far south. Alabama and Georgia, where so many of us north Floridians experience similar weather, hold their Arbor Days in late February.
Contrary to popular opinion, the optimal planting time for trees is not in the spring, but in fall and winter. Planting during dormancy allows trees to focus their energy resources on growing healthy roots. In the coming spring, a steady supply of warmth, sunshine, and pollinators will bring on leaf growth, flowers, and fruit.
Check with your local Extension offices, garden clubs, and municipalities to find out if there is an Arbor Day event near you! Several local agencies have joined forces to organize tree giveaway events and sales in observance of Florida’s Arbor Day.
Saturday, January 25th
Leon County: UF/IFAS Extension Leon County Master Gardeners will assist with the county’s Arbor Day tree planting at 9 a.m. Martha Wellman Park, 5317 W. Tennessee St., Tallahassee.
Historic live oaks provide shade and wildlife habitat at the Escambia Extension walking trail. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF / IFAS Extension
A recent study of 3-5 year olds found that the average pre-reading American child could identify hundreds of marketing brand logos (McDonald’s, Disney, even Toyota). Most researchers would be mightily challenged to find even a middle school student who can identify more than a couple of trees growing in their own backyard. The fields and forests many of us grew up in are steadily converting to look-alike suburban areas, so this lack of local natural knowledge is commonplace. As the quote by Senegalese forester Baba Dioum goes, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” If kids and adults do not appreciate and understand the natural world around them, we are unlikely to preserve these priceless wonders.
To do our part towards this aim of educating others, we at Escambia Extension received a grant from International Paper to plant 30 trees around our office’s walking track. Every tree has a clearly marked identification tag listing its common and botanical name.
A newly planted sassafras tree on the Extension walking trail. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF / IFAS Extension
Initially we just planned to add more shade trees to the sunny side of the track, but after a discussion with local foresters, we realized this effort could be an ideal teaching tool. The local middle and high school Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapters participate in a tree identification contest, and are tasked with knowing 50 native tree species. While 10 of them were tropical species that do not perform well in north Florida, we have the other 40 planted here on the property. Students and any interested citizen interested in learning these native species can walk along our track, getting exercise and taking in the natural world around them.
A spring walking event will kick off the official opening of the tree identification trail, so join us April 26 to learn more about healthy living and the value of trees. Or, join us for an Extension Open House on April 27 to explore the demonstration gardens, purchase vegetable plants, or learn more about Extension’s wide array of community services.
The Chickasaw plum is covered in beautiful small white flowers in the spring. Photo credit: UF IFAS
The native Chickasaw plum is a beautiful smaller tree (12-20 ft mature height) that is perfect for front yards, small areas, and streetscapes. True to its name, the Chickasaw plum was historically an important food source to Native American tribes in the southeast, who cultivated the trees in settlements well before the arrival of Europeans. They typically harvested and then dried the fruit to preserve it. Botanist-explorer William Bartram noted the species during his travels through the southeast in the 1700’s. He rarely saw it in the forests, and hypothesized that it was brought over from west of the Mississippi River.
One of the first trees to bloom each spring, the Chickasaw plum’s white, fragrant flowers and delicious red fruit make it charmingly aesthetic and appealing to humans and wildlife alike. The plums taste great eaten fresh from the tree but can be processed into jelly or wine. Chickasaw plums serve as host plants for the red-spotted purple butterfly, and their fruit make them popular with other wildlife. These trees are fast growers and typically multi-trunked.
Almost any landscape works for the Chickasaw plum, as it can grow in full sun, partial sun, or partial shade, and tolerates a wide variety of soil types. The species is very drought tolerant and performs well in sandy soils.
The plum is in the rose family and has thorns, so it is wise to be aware of these if young children might play near the tree.
Winter is ideal tree-planting time in Florida. While national Arbor Day is in spring, Florida’s Arbor Day is the 3rd Friday of January due to our milder winters. This year, Escambia County’s tree giveaway will include Chickasaw plums, so if this tree sounds like a great addition to your landscape, come visit us on January 19 and pick one up.
For more information about tree selection in northwest Florida, contact your local county Extension office.
Pruning is one of the most controversial aspects of maintaining crapemyrtle. Traditionally, many crapemyrtles are routinely topped, leaving large branch and stem stubs. This practice has been called “crape murder” because of the potential impacts on the crapemyrtle health and structural integrity. Topping is the drastic removal of large-diameter wood (typically several years old), with the end result of shortening all stems and branches.
Hard pruning (topping) stimulates crapemyrtle sprouting from roots, upper stems, or the base of main stems. If basal and root sprouts are not removed, one or more may form woody stems that eventually compete with existing main stems. These additional or competing stems may result in poor form and structure, such as stems that rub against each other.
Topping typically delays flowering up to one month compared to unpruned crapemyrtle. On some cultivars, topping also shorten the season of bloom. Long-stem sprouts emerge just below large-diameter cuts that result from topping. These sprouts usually develop into upright, unbranched stems that eventually flower, often bending under their own weight. Rain or wind storms can cause extreme bending and some will break because they are weakly attached to the main stem.
Topping removes large amounts of starches and other food reserves stored within branches. Topping dramatically reduces the size of the plant canopy, ultimately decreasing the plant’s ability to produce food (starches) through photosynthesis. The large branch stubs caused by topping result in large areas of exposed wood that allow access by insects and wood-rotting organisms, weakening the plant’s structure. Finally, topping results in many dead stubs throughout the tree.
Proper pruning may be needed, just like any other tree. Lower limbs of crapemyrtle are removed to increase clearance for pedestrians or vehicles. Stems are cut to increase branching. Other pruning may be conducted to direct growth away from structures, stimulate flowering, and remove spent flowers, seed capsules, and dead or damaged branches and twigs.
Properly placed, crapemyrtle is a low-maintenance plant needing little or no pruning. Problems with overgrown, misshapen, or misplaced crapemyrtle can be greatly reduced with proper selection of crapemyrtle cultivars, proper plant selection at the nursery, and proper placement in the landscape. For more information on cultivar selection go to: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg266.
If pruning is necessary, use the following recommendations:
- Pruning for safety may be done anytime. This may involve removing damaged or weak branches or pruning lower limbs for pedestrian and vehicle clearance and visibility.
- Pruning to improve plant structure, redirect growth, or alter plant shape and appearance should occur when plants are leafless and dormant–typically December through February. Although this can be accomplished at any time, without leaves, the branching structure is clearly visible to more easily determine appropriate branches for pruning.
- Prune to remove crossing or rubbing branches.
- Prune dead, damaged, or diseased branches at the branch collar.
- Remove vigorous branches growing toward the center of the canopy.
- Severe pruning should be performed late in the dormant period. Pruning too early might stimulate new growth that could be damaged by low temperatures.