Taxodium Distichum Part I

bv Rudi Adam

Distribution and Species

The native habitat of Taxodium is the southern United States bordering the Gulf of Mexico and it is also found anywhere near water from Delaware to Florida. Due to its habitat, which is swampland, it forms almost exclusive stands, since other tree species cannot 'compete with having their root systems submerged for a great part of the year.

These wet conditions also give rise to a unique feature of forming "knees", often up to 1m high that serves the purpose of supplying oxygen to the root system in these wet conditions. The Swamp Cypress is long-lived, reaching an age of 500-600 years with exceptional specimens being credited with estimated ages of up to 2000 years. Its wood is soft, but resistant to fungal attacks and therefore often used for underwater- constructions in that part of the world. Knowing its origin, it is surprising that it is also frost hardy, withstanding temperatures of - 30°C in some parts of northern Europe, where it was introduced as early as the year 1640.

The common name is also Bald Cypress, but I am not certain if this refers to the stark nakedness after leaf drop, or to the tree's habit of forming an umbrella-like rounded crown with no further upward growth once it has matured and reached full-growth. In its natural environment it can grow to a height of 40-50m. On the fringes of its natural habitat, where the water supply is less adequate, growth is often stunted and fanciers of the art collect many "Bonsai versions".

In its natural habitat, the tendency is to grow as a single trunk and always upright. The bark, rough with deep fissures and long peeling strips, is highly attractive and in stark visual contrast to the soft pale green, feathered leaves. It shows no tendency of real autumn colours, the leaves simply turn a light brown colour and then falling off Multi-trunk specimens are inevitably the result of damage in one way or another, however, it is a strong "healer" and trunk-damage or cuts will callus in a relatively short time.

Young and juvenile trees have narrow pyramidal shapes with ascending branches. As the tree matures the branches become: more horizontal and eventually when very long and covered with "Spanish moss" the branches descend giving the drooping appearance of the mature tree. However, in the stunted Bonsai version almost all branches grow in a strong descending manner.

There are three varieties of this species of cypress as I can make out:

a.) Taxodium distichum - Swamp or Bald Cypress

b.) Taxodium ascendens - Pond Cypress

c.) Taxodium mucronatum - Montezuma Cypress (retains its leaves during winter)

Development in Open Ground

swamp-cypress-fig-1Figure 1Usually trees available from ordinary nurseries, either "fingerlings" or slightly thicker, are tall poles with very little or no taper that need drastic shortening. Either of these versions will take a considerable time to turn it into even a resemblance of a "Bonsai".

Planting young trees in open ground (minimum of 1 square meter) or a very large container will hasten the process of development considerably, while at the same time creating "taper" and "movement". Suitable stock can be bought from plant nurseries at reasonable prices. It is best to start with what I call a "fingerling" of 2-3 years of age when they are still very flexible. They are about 1 - 1.5m in height and have a trunk-thickness of a finger or up to thumb size (the" fingerling" !) and seldom have branches anywhere near the base. (Fig. 1)

WARNING!!! After purchase do not prune the tree!!! It is a bleeder and all pruning must be done in the dormant stage - do not attempt removal of large limbs in the early active season.

For a single tree, prepare a square hole measuring at least 500mm x 500mm x 500mm deep, in an appropriate site in your garden. For more than one tree dig a trench with the same measurements for each additional tree. If you rather want to use a container make sure it has similar proportions and put a layer of sandy soil in the bottom for fast development Into the bottom layer mix at least 51 of cow manure and 2 parts soil, spread it evenly and cover this with a IOOmm layer of normal soil. Place the "fingerling" that has been removed from its original container, on top of this in either a straight or slanted direction and try to retain the previous "soil-level" of the tree. Mix the remainder of the soil from the hole with a generous portion of compost and fill in the hole. Water well and protect the soil surface with bark chips or additional compost; this will aid in the moisture retention of the soil. This planting with almost no disturbance of the roots may be done at any time of the year!

The roots of the Swamp cypress are active almost a month before you see leaves, about July, therefore if you wish to inspect the roots, this should be done in June, when it is possible to wash all the soil off the roots without harming the tree. At this time it is possible to do corrective root pruning, removing roots that are too dominant, misshapen or curled. For trees planted any other time but mid-winter, this procedure is not recommended and it is better to plant with the roots unseen.

Once the tree and the roots are reasonably well established, which you will see by the rate of growth, normally within 6 months to 1 year of planting, the tree is bent over in its unpruned state and pinned to the ground with a stake or anything heavy enough to hold it down. This will form a bow-like line, 200-400mm off the ground and this depends on the trunk thickness or flexibility. (Fig. 2).

swamp-cypress-fig-2Figure 2

Within a short time, true to its upright growing habit, it will sprout a number of shoots on or near the top of the bow. Allow them to extend to about 300mm, before selecting the most suitable new leader and remove all other strong upward growing sprouts. Do not be tempted to shorten or remove anything else. Fertilize with cow or chicken manure every 3 months, and allow the tree to grow unhindered for the rest of the season to about 1 m high.

swamp-cypress-fig-3Figure 3

If it has been well watered and feeding was appropriate, dormancy will be rather short. When it reaches 1 m, again pin the new apex down to the ground and try to make the curve shorter than the previous one. Imagine the first bend at 8 o'clock and then the second bend at 4 o'clock. (Fig. 3). During dormancy it is permissible to prune over-zealous sprouts or any unwanted shoots that may affect the future design, but never prune the apex.

swamp-cypress-fig-4Figure 4

In the spring, 18 months after planting out, new sprouts appear and must be pruned. (Fig. 4). The procedure of bending is repeated in midsummer when the new leader is bent to the 12 o'clock position and the new apex is allowed to grow unhindered until the dormant season. (see Fig. 5).

swamp-cypress-fig-5Figure 5

After two years, if the tree could has developed taper and the size you require it can then be harvested during the dormant season Root-prune and prune unwanted branches of the tree and replant it into a relatively large container - not into a bonsai pot yet ! (Fig. 6)

swamp-cypress-fig-6Figure 6

If you want a larger specimen continue growing in open ground for another season, bending the new selected apex to the 10 o'clock position and the next to the 2 o'clock position and finally to the 6 o'clock position. These bent apices or ''branches'' may be retained and shortened, or eventually removed entirely giving you a trunk with movement and a choice of new branches. The pruning scars will heal over within 2-3 years depending on the further fast development of the tree.

Continue reading Part II

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Random Bonsai Tip

To improve branch ramification one can defoliate deciduous trees in summer. This method should only be used on healthy, strong trees in their later stages of development.