Flowering time (month)
Ornamental or utility value
moderately dry to fresh
The real cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) is the epitome of holidays for many people: especially in Tuscany, but also in some other Mediterranean regions, numerous streets are lined with old cypress avenues. The slender, tall coniferous trees are clearly visible from a distance. The original range of the True Cypress stretched from Greece and the eastern Mediterranean via Asia Minor to Iran. In Italy, the real cypress was originally not native, but was already introduced in antiquity. The Romans brought the tree with the expansion of their Roman Empire also to southern France and Spain. The name cypress is often used here as a synonym for the false cypresses (Chamacyparis). They are related to the real cypress like the trees of life (Thuja), but they are different species. Moreover, in contrast to the real cypress, false cypresses are not native to Europe. The species originate mainly from North America, some also from East Asia.
In the Mediterranean region cypresses are also very important as forest trees. The relatively light, bright wood is easy to work with. It emits a strong scent and is very durable due to the stored essential oils. Therefore it is used not only in furniture construction but also outdoors.
Depending on its location and climate, the true cypress grows to a height of 20 to 30 metres. However, such large specimens hardly exist in the United States. Some of the highest German specimens grow on the island of Mainau – they are about 15 metres high. In a favourable climate, young cypresses grow very quickly and can reach heights of up to six metres within ten years. Depending on the type of growth, the plants retain their slender column shape with tightly upright branches and twigs into old age. Even cypresses over 100 years old are rarely wider than two metres. The light reddish brown bark of the trunk has fine longitudinal furrows. The branches and older twigs are smooth and ochre-yellow to reddish-brown in colour.
Like all cypress plants, the true cypress also bears the typical scale leaves which lie close to the thin branches. They are evergreen, arranged crosswise and cover the thin branches completely. The individual leaves are grey-green, ovoid and only a few millimetres long. They are usually rejected in the third year, therefore only the one and two year old shoots are foliate.
Like all conifers, the Mediterranean cypress is monoecious, which means that it produces relatively inconspicuous male and female flowers on every plant. The yellow-orange male flowers are conical suppositories about two millimetres long which, depending on the climate, form at the tips of last year’s shoots from the end of January to the end of February.
The female flowers are spherical greenish cones with a diameter of about two millimetres. They sit in the middle sections of the perennial shoots. The pollination is done by the wind.
The pollinated female cones swell to a diameter of about ten millimetres by early summer and turn yellow in autumn. As soon as they dry brownish, the seed scales – usually five or six per cone – open and release 7 to 18 seeds each.
Location and soil
The Mediterranean cypress is sufficiently frost hardy only in the mildest regions of the United States. Here, too, it needs a location sheltered from easterly winds with a microclimate that is as favourable as possible. A place that lies in the full sun from late morning until evening is ideal. The soil should be well permeable and not too damp, especially in winter. However, prolonged drought is not a problem as the trees are accustomed to droughts. The soil type and pH value play a subordinate role, because cypresses grow both on loamy limestone soils and on acidic, nutrient-poor sandy soils. Ideally, however, the soil should be slightly loamier, moderately dry to fresh and not too rich in humus, with limestone content.
Planting and care
If you want to try to plant a real cypress in your garden, you should definitely plant the tree in spring. Only then will it have sufficient time until winter to grow well and form a strong root system. If the soil in your garden tends to water, a large and deep drainage is very important. Dig a planting hole at least 80 centimetres deep and 150 centimetres in diameter and mix the topsoil with coarse building sand at a ratio of two to one. In addition, you should fill a gravel layer at least ten centimetres high into the bottom of the planting hole as a drainage. Secure the freshly planted cypress with a long tree post sloped on the east side of the trunk so that the roots do not tear off in strong winds.
The cypress does not need special care. In the Central European summer it usually does without additional irrigation, only the freshly planted specimens have to be watered penetratingly during drought so that they root well. Since cypresses prefer mineral soil, they should also be restrained with bark mulch and compost in spring. Cypresses can also be cultivated in large tubs. Above all, they need the widest possible standing area so that the trees do not tip over so easily in the wind. Cypresses grow considerably weaker in tubs than in the open and should be supplied with a liquid green plant fertilizer every two weeks in addition to regular watering.
If you let your cypresses grow freely, pruning is usually limited to removing individual frozen shoots in spring. You can, however, also shorten the shoot tips regularly in spring so that the trees form beautiful dense columns. As is the case with all other cypress plants, never cut the shoots further than back into the scaled shoots. Cypresses do not sprout again from the older wood after a pruning.
Freshly planted cypresses should be well protected against frost damage in the first few years. Although the plants are hardy to about -18 degrees Celsius, this is not enough in most regions of the United States. If it gets even colder, severe frostbite can be expected. After ice-cold nights, the morning sun can also cause considerable damage due to the so-called frost dryness. As a winter protection measure, you should completely wrap the crowns of younger cypresses in a light winter fleece during the first few years after planting. In addition, it makes sense to mulch the root area with a thick layer of leaves and stabilise it with fir twigs. With older plants you can do without winter protection in very mild regions like the Upper Rhine and the Cologne Bay. If you cultivate your cypresses in tubs, you can also spend the winter outdoors. Move the plants to a shady place close to a wind-protected house wall and place the tubs on an insulating base, for example on a thick wooden or polystyrene plate. In addition, the bucket is insulated from all sides with several layers of sackcloth so that it does not freeze through. Alternatively, you can sink it into the ground in a shady place in the garden. However, the safest wintering area is an unheated greenhouse, a so-called cold house.
Due to their origin cypresses fit perfectly into Mediterranean gardens. Since their crowns remain narrow, they also find enough space on small properties. They are usually planted as small groups, avenues or in pairs in the front garden as green gatekeepers to the left and right of the entrance to the house. In the tub they serve as Mediterranean terrace decoration. Cypresses can be combined with laurel, oleander and other Mediterranean woody plants. They also go very well with all kinds of roses.
The most important garden plant is the particularly narrow variety ‘Stricta’. The selection, also known as ‘Pyramidalis’, rarely grows wider than 150 centimetres and reaches a height of about 15 metres in mild regions – but only after decades. Tip: If you are looking for a harder winter alternative to the Mediterranean cypress, you should opt for the very similar looking American cypress (Cupressus arizonica). There is a very narrow breed of her called ‘Fastigiata’, which is only about eight meters high.
Cypresses are usually propagated by sowing. The seeds are usually ripe only in the year after fertilization between March and May. They are stratified for a month in moist, hot sand in the refrigerator and then sown. They then germinate quite quickly and reliably. In the first few years, the young plants must be wintered frost-free. The true variety propagation of cypresses is possible in August and September. Young and vigorous, but well-ripened shoots are used and cut into cuttings about ten to twelve centimetres long. The side branches are torn off at the base and a wound cut is also made. You should also shorten the shoot tips. Put the shoots in damp growing soil that has been emaciated with building sand and keep the air humidity high with a foil cover. The ideal propagation temperature is 22 degrees and it takes at least eight weeks to see the first small roots. Like the seedlings, the young plants propagated from cuttings must be wintered frost-free in the first few years.
Diseases and pests
Cypresses in our country are mainly infested by fungal diseases, which other cypress plants, such as the tree of life, also have to contend with. These include, for example, Kabatina thujae (Kabatina dying instinct). In their Mediterranean homeland, cypress cancer (Seiridium cardinale) in particular is a strong threat. But he hardly appears in our latitudes.
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I am Don Burke, one of the authors at My Garden Guide. I am a horticulturist that cultivates, grows, and cares for plants, ranging from shrubs and fruits to flowers. I do it in my own garden and in my nursery. I show you how to take care of your garden and how to perform garden landscaping in an easy way, step by step.I am originally from Sydney and I wrote in local magazines. Later on, I have decided, more than two decades ago, to create my own blog. My area of specialization is related to orchid care, succulent care, and the study of the substrate and the soil. Therefore, you will see many articles dedicated to these disciplines. I also provide advice about how to improve the landscape design of your garden.