9 Differences Between Bald Cypress And Pond Cypress Trees

Colorful winter bald cypress turning red in autumn at a beautiful garden

If you’ve ever been to a swampy region of the southeastern United States, you’ve probably seen a bald cypress or pond cypress tree. They’re pretty unforgettable with their strange base of many root-like structures that appear to prop the rest of the tree above the water. The bald and pond cypress are closely related but differ in a few ways.

In truth, the best way to tell apart a bald cypress from a pond cypress is to look at the leaves. Bald cypress trees have needle leaves alternating on the twig, while pond cypress trees have longer needle leaves that point upward toward the sky instead of outward from the twig.

Read on to learn about all the differences between a bald cypress tree and a pond cypress tree. We’ll also cover some similarities between the two and go over what all this talk of ‘knees’ is about.

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Bald Cypress And Pond Cypress: What’s The Difference?

There are a few people out there in the botany world that aren’t convinced that pond cypress and bald cypress are, in fact, different species. They argue that the difference between them is due to environmental influence, not necessarily a difference in genes.

With that being said, the general consensus is that the bald cypress and pond cypress are two different species. Although, it can be almost impossible to tell the difference when both trees are young.

The best time to try to differentiate between a bald cypress and a pond cypress is when the trees are mature. You’ll also want to check them out in the summer to early fall. This is when the leaves are developed enough to differentiate them, but they haven’t fallen off yet for the winter season.

If you haven’t already guessed, both trees are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in the fall. Considering cypress tree ‘leaves’ consist of needles, this can be a little surprising to those of us that are used to trees with needles being evergreen.

Not our cypress trees!

So, how can we tell these two closely-related trees apart? Is it as obvious as the difference between a maple and oak or something more elusive?

Bald Cyprus vs. Pond Cyprus Tree Leaves

Leaves are often a distinguishing feature of trees but can be problematic if you’re tree peeping in the winter. So, if you’re checking out cypress trees, be sure to look in the summer or early fall.

Bald cypress tree needles.
Bald cypress tree needles.

Bald cypress trees have needle leaves that are alternating on the twig. They are very similar to a yew tree, which is where they get their Latin name ‘Taxodium’ which means ‘yew like.’ 

Pond cypress leaves are also needlelike, but they are longer and tend to point upward toward the sky instead of outward away from the twig.

Both trees change color in the fall to a reddish-brown before the leaves drop off for the winter season.

Bald Cyprus vs. Pond Cyprus Tree Elevation

Since both bald cypress and pond cypress like to be in moist environments, it’s no surprise that both trees grow at lower elevations. 

Colorful winter bald cypress turning red in autumn at garden.
Colorful winter bald cypress turning red in autumn at garden.

Bald cypress trees can grow at higher elevations than pond cypress, up to a maximum known elevation of 1,750 feet. Even then, the trees growing at this elevation are very isolated. Pond cypress trees are unlikely to grow at elevations even above 100 feet, according to the USDA Forest Service.

So, if you’re cruising around at 1,000-foot elevation and see one of these trees, you can bet it’s a bald cypress, not a pond cypress.

Bald Cyprus vs. Pond Cyprus Tree Native Range

This is another obvious way to tell if you’re looking at a bald cypress or pond cypress. The native range of the bald cypress is more extensive than that of the pond cypress. 

If you are inland and spot a cypress tree, you are more likely to be looking at a bald cypress than a pond cypress, as pond cypresses normally grow along coasts, not inland.

Bald cypress trees grow along the east and southeast coasts, reaching as far north as southeast New Jersey, as far south as the southern tip of Florida, and as far west as southeast Texas. 

The bald cypress also thrives inland in the southeastern states, including Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. They mostly grow along rivers, streams, and sometimes in ponds, but the bald cypress prefers moving water to stagnant water.

Pond cypress trees are less widely distributed. They’re found from southeast Virginia, south along the coast to parts of Florida. Turning west, you can find them along the gulf coast over to southeast Louisiana, according to the USDA Forest Service’s Fire Effects Information System.

Bald Cyprus vs. Pond Cyprus Tree Temperature Needs

In general, bald cypress trees can withstand colder temperatures than the pond cypress tree. There seems to be a pattern here, huh?

It can get pretty chilly up in the New Jersey area. Bald cypresses have been known to survive temperatures all the way down to -29℉! The pond cypress can only withstand temps down to 10℉. 

Bald cypress trees can put up with a wider variety of climates than the pond cypress. This is why the bald cypress is more widely distributed, and the pond cypress is mainly secluded to warm coastal climates.

Bald Cyprus vs. Pond Cyprus Tree Growing Conditions

We mentioned the preferred elevation and temperature, a cut and dry statistic, but what about soil?

In this particular circumstance, the pond cypress is actually more tolerant than the bald cypress. The pond cypress is okay with acidic soil, whereas the bald cypress will either have stunted growth or will not grow at all in acidic soils.

Taxodium ascendens, also known as pond cypress.
Taxodium ascendens, also known as pond cypress.

Pond cypress trees like to grow in poorly drained areas, shallow ponds, or stagnant water. You’ll rarely see a pond cypress along a river or fast-moving stream. These areas are more likely the home of bald cypress trees, which prefer moving water.

One of the most interesting features of the bald cypress tree is that it actually prefers to grow in areas that flood regularly! This is how the tree gathers much of its nutrients, and one way, its seeds are carried off to possible grow sites.

Neither bald cypress nor pond cypress can withstand high levels of salinity in the soil or the water they are growing in, according to a 2009 study.

Bald Cyprus vs. Pond Cyprus Tree Full Height At Maturity

Obviously, this can be difficult to discern if the trees you are looking at are not mature. Not only that, but how can you tell when a tree is mature? It can’t exactly tell you…

Suffice to say; if you’re looking at a towering tree that seems to be over 70 feet, you’re likely looking at a bald cypress. These trees can reach heights up to 120 feet, according to the Texas Parks & Wildlife, whereas the pond cypress rarely exceeds 60 feet.

Growth rates also differ between the two trees. While both are slow-growing trees, the pond cypress grows at turtle speed compared to the bald cypress. This is most likely due to the less fertile growing conditions of the pond cypress.

Bald Cyprus vs. Pond Cyprus Tree Uses

Trees are super useful to the world. They make a lot of things we humans take for granted. Our furniture, cabinets, paper, books, coffee sleeves, wine corks, and even some of our medicine all come from trees.

Every tree has its own advantages. Some are better suited to make pulp, wood chips, or simply to provide shade, while others are stronger and can be used for houses, bridges, and other sturdy objects.

Both pond cypress and bald cypress fall in that latter category. The timber is TOUGH and used for things like bridges, rafters, boat planks, construction, and fences.

In addition to being tough, this lumber is in high demand because of its ability to resist decay. Cypressene is a special oil made by these trees that keeps the wood from decaying.

So, bald cypress and pond cypress are tough…what else are they good for?

Both trees provide a ton of benefits to all the swampy critters that hang around. Evening grosbeak, squirrels, wild turkeys, and ducks all benefit from bald cypress seeds, which they munch on. 

Bald eagles and osprey use the top of the tree for nesting sites. And when the long-lived bald cypress finally falls, the underwater logs provide a spawning ground for catfish.

Pond cypress trees provide similar benefits but in a different niche. The long-legged herons and egrets make nesting sites near them. They also provide one of the only breeding grounds for certain species of tree frogs, toads, salamanders, and other slimy critters.

Bald Cyprus vs. Pond Cyprus Tree Bark

If you’re looking for differences between pond cypress and bald cypress and the leaves have already fallen off, you can try to differentiate them from the bark instead.

In general, both cypress trees have thin bark, making them susceptible to fire. However, pond cypress bark is thicker than bald cypress, making it slightly more resistant to fire, according to the USDA Forest Service.

Bald cypress bark tends to have sharper ridges compared to the rounded ridges of the pond cypress. The color of the bark is anywhere from brown to grey for both trees.

This can be a difficult tool to use to tell the difference between bald cypress and pond cypress, but it can be helpful in the winter season when leaves aren’t available.

Bald Cyprus vs. Pond Cyprus Tree Shape

This one doesn’t always pan out, as not every tree grows the same way each time. Soil conditions, and in the case of a bald cypress tree, flooding conditions as well, affect the tree’s growth rate and direction of growth.

If you’re seeing a cypress tree that is more pointed like that of a Christmas tree, you’re most likely looking at a pond cypress. Bald cypress trees have a rounded appearance with more uniform branches.

You’ll also notice that the leaves of the pond cypress are likely pointing upward or pressed against the branches. This is where the tree gets its pointed shape. Bald cypress leaves typically point outward from the twig, giving it a rounded appearance.

Cypress Trees Have Knees?

Close up of bald cypress tree knees.
Close up of bald cypress tree knees.

Bald cypress trees have a peculiar habit that botanists still haven’t figured out.

Yes, bald cypress trees grow protrusions from the ground called knees. Pond cypress trees are less likely to develop knees, but some do. They are typically more rounded, whereas the bald cypress knees are pointed, like a stalagmite. The purpose of the knees isn’t well understood.

When they are removed or cut down, the trees don’t seem to mind all that much. Knees are more likely to develop on trees that are at least partially submerged in water.

Fun fact: bald cypress trees even produce cones!

Cypress Trees Are Water Purifiers

As we mentioned before, bald cypress trees like to grow on floodplains. The nutrients that are carried in floods help the tree grow, and in turn, the tree helps purify the water.

Bald cypress trees can survive waters up to 10 feet deep, and sometimes more. Similar to how some trees can purify the air, bald cypress trees can purify the water by reducing the number of pollutants and harmful agents in the water. 

Cypress domes are a specific type of swamp characterized by smaller cypress trees growing on the outer rim of the area and taller trees growing toward the center. This gives the swamp a dome-like appearance, hence the name.

These domes are so good at purifying water that they can serve as sewage treatment facilities, helping to recharge the groundwater and improve the water quality.

Wrapping Up Our Cypress Tree Knowledge!

That’s all we have for now on the differences between a bald cypress and a pond cypress. These two trees are closely related, both being of the Taxodium genus. However, there are a few differences between them.

To recap, the major difference between a bald cypress and a pond cypress include:

  • Leaves
  • Elevation
  • Native Range
  • Temperature Needs
  • Growing Conditions
  • Height at Maturity
  • Uses
  • Bark
  • Tree Shape

Turning the page on the differences between the two trees, there are also many similaritiesBoth trees have the same active flowering periods, germination periods, and both have a partial tolerance to shade, making them a common dominant species in tree stands.

Both bald cypress and pond cypress are also monoecious, meaning they have both male and female parts on the trees. Seed dispersal is often carried about by swamp critters like squirrels and rabbits. 

Lastly, both trees like growing on relatively flat topography and do not do well in slopey areas. This isn’t really surprising, seeing as both trees prefer poorly drained soils and moist areas, which are rarely found on hillsides where water simply flows downhill.

Hopefully, this article has cleared up any confusion between a bald cypress and a pond cypress. Both trees have some amazing attributes and give us humans beautiful scenery to look at.

References

Bacchus, S. T., Hamazaki, T., Britton, K. O., & Haines, B. L. (2007, June 08). Soluble sugar composition of pond-cypress: a potential hydroecological indicator of ground water perturbations. Journal of the American Water Resources Association36(1), 55-65. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1752-1688.2000.tb04248.x

Krauss, K. W., Duberstein, J. A., Doyle, T. W., Conner, W. H., Day, R. H., Inabinette, L. W., & Whitbeck, J. L. (2009). Site condition, structure, and growth of baldcypress along tidal/non-tidal salinity gradients. Wetlands29, 505-519. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1672/08-77.1

Stahle, D. W., Burnette, D. J., Villanueva, J., Cerano, J., Fye, F. K., Griffin, R. D., Cleveland, M. K., Stahle, D. K., Edmondson, J. R., & Wolff, K. P. (2012, February 21). Tree-ring analysis of ancient bald cypress trees and subfossil wood. Quaternary Science Reviews34, 1-15. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277379111003489

Watts, A. C., Kobziar, L. N., & Snyder, J. R. (2012). Fire reinforces structure of pondcypress (Taxodium distichum var. imbricarium) Domes in a wetland landscape. Wetlands32, 439-448. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13157-012-0277-9

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