Knocked Kneed and Bald
I love this tree. Really.
The first time I ever noticed one was when I was working as a photographer at an old estate in Yonkers called Wave Hill.
There was (and hopefully still is) a gorgeous specimen planted out on the lawn not too far from where the couple getting married were holding their ceremony.
She possessed a distracting beauty. Graceful lines, an airy disposition and a radiant confidence. I’m referring to the tree. It was a mature specimen with a broad, pyramidal habit, an exquisite fine texture, feathery leaves and handsome gently peeling, reddish bark.
The ceremony wasn’t bad either but it took place under the punitive sun of a withering August afternoon.
I did not know that it was possible for the human body to sweat so much and still remain upright.
The tree didn’t seem to mind the southern swamp climate. It must have felt right at home under the conditions of its native coastal US Southeast. Pass the Mint Julep, please.
Several months later, while deeply ensconced in my ragged edition of Dirr’s Encyclopedia I identified the tree as a Bald Cypress.
I recall an image from the Dirr’s book showing the trees growing next to water where they had developed fantastic protrusions from the roots called “knees”.
Apparently, the “knees” help the tree to obtain the oxygen it needs when growing in wet conditions.
The memory of that photograph conjures up the distant sound of a banjo playing, the buzz of insects larger than birds, the fecund aroma of thick, swamp air and the visage of an ancient, shirtless, toothless man in overalls bent to the work of poling his battered, old skiff full of crayfish past slithering snakes and the glowing, wet orbs of semi-submerged alligators to a tin shack on stilts. Spanish moss hanging from every available branch. Deliverance Revisited.
That said there are two magnificent, majestic examples of the trees side-by-side at the south end of the Harlem Meer in Central Park. From swamp to city. No banjo music there. Hip Hop or Salsa is more likely. Shirtless old men, optional.
There are also two Bald Cypresses growing in my neighborhood in New York City. The tree planted this past spring shows all of the vigor and optimism of youth. It proudly displays its lush, green, feathery foliage and stands approximately twelve feet tall. The old tree that lives around the corner seems much more dour and likely to complain about the weather or your dog. The old tree stands a very leggy thirty feet tall and has a rather mangy habit. The Gingko trees on either side have been bullying it for a long time. The tree becomes almost insignificant in this situation. Given the space and the absence of competition, the young Bald Cypress should grow into a beautiful specimen and a worthy street tree.
The Bald Cypress will grow within Zones 4 through 9. The tree will be evergreen or semi-evergreen in the warmer zones and deciduous in the colder zones.
Keeping that in mind, a Bald Cypress in a northern climate will end up as bald as a cue ball. A single, naked tree might look good in the right setting but a group of trees could provide a rather striking structural element to the winter landscape. Bald Cypress, like most people, certainly look better with their clothes on.
A few of the images accompanying this post were taken in Battery Park where the Bald Cypress has been used very successfully in both specimen and in group plantings.
Battery Park is located at the bottom of Manhattan in a rather exposed location requiring tough, wind resistant plantings. Due to the park’s proximity to the ocean and the briny quality of the tidal river, I imagine that salt spray could also be an issue there. Nonetheless, I have to wonder about the viability of the trees in truly exposed coastal settings. The deciduous quality of the tree should protect it from desiccating winter winds. A close source of fresh water could keep the trees alive in that harsh environment and maybe even throw in a few knocked knees. Let me know.
The Bald Cypress is a wonderful and beautiful tree. Plant it. Enjoy it. Tell your friends.