Best Bonsai Trees for Beginners – Bald Cypress

BeginnerTreeBaldCypress

The National Champion Bald Cypress – at Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge

One of the best bonsai trees for beginners is the Bald Cypress, or Taxodium distichum. A member of the Redwood family, Taxodiaceae, it is a primary tree species and can reach heights of 100-120’ with a trunk diameter typically between 3-5’. Larger and older specimens are known and documented, including what you see to your left, the largest tree east of the Sierra Nevada and the sixth largest in terms of overall volume in the United States.

This is the national champion bald cypress, 94’ tall with a 17’ diameter trunk (it’s a single tree with two trunks). I live a mere 17 miles from it.  Nice…

The needles:

  • are flat,
  • are crowded,
  • are feather-like,
  • they occur in two rows on green twigs,
  • are dull green above and whitish beneath, and
  • they turn reddish-brown in the fall and drop along with the twigs.

The bark is brown or gray, with long fibrous or scaly ridges. It peels off in strips.

It’s my opinion that bald cypress is the undisputed King of American Bonsai and again, they are one of the very best bonsai trees for beginners!

Best Features

Growth habit: Bald cypress is one of the more vigorous species grown as bonsai. Although you can expect only three rounds of growth each season, each round of growth is very dynamic.

Bald Cypress 8-4-14

Bald cypress flat-top in training 3 months

Here’s a tree I collected in Winter 2014, in training for a mere three months when the photo to your right was taken:

 

Leaf size reduction: bald cypress fronds and their needles reduce in size from roughly 4-6” and 3/8-3/4” to about half that size.

Ramification: the branching on bald cypress needs to get to a certain diameter to support sub-branching. Secondary branching can be achieved in a single growing season, with an additional level or two in each successive year.

Root growth: very vigorous. In a single growing season after collection the root system can be quite substantial, as in this example:

BeginnerTreeBaldCypress1RootGrowth

Bald cypress collected in January 2013, photographed during its initial potting in March 2014.

  • As with any other species you collect, be sure not to disturb the root zone during the first year, to allow the tender new roots time to harden off.
  • By year two, your tree can be potted into a bonsai container provided you’re satisfied with the development of the branching of your tree and the newly developing apex, and no longer need vigorous recovery growth.
  • Once your bald cypress bonsai is potted, plan on root-pruning and repotting every second year.

Worst Feature

It’s hard to think of a bad feature of bald cypress.

They tend to produce new buds all up and down the trunk forever, which you have to remove throughout each growing season.

Another minor annoyance is the foliage becomes shaggy toward the end of summer. On healthy specimens this can be addressed by simply defoliating the tree in early to mid-July. A new flush of attractive, healthy growth will appear within a few weeks and last until leaf-drop.

As for pests and diseases:

  • cypress twig gall midge is common but not damaging,
  • green swellings that look like small cones appear on the twigs; they should be removed and destroyed,
  • mealy bugs, cypress leaf beetles and rust mites are potential pests so use standard pesticides as recommended but never use horticultural oils on bald cypress.

Sources of Bald Cypress

Bald cypress is native to the more southerly part of Eastern North America, from Texas north to Southern Illinois along the historical Mississippi River floodplain, along the Gulf Coast to Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard to Delaware.

It’s an aquatic species, meaning it occurs naturally in wet to flooded areas. It’s also extensively planted in the landscape, and actually thrives in non-aquatic environments. This means it’s available in the nursery trade; however, commercial specimens tend to be arrow-straight, useful only for formal upright style and perhaps forest plantings.

For the beginner, an inexpensive specimen from a regular nursery bought on sale is a good way to become accustomed to the growing habits of the species before moving on to larger, better quality trees. These can be purchased or collected when the time is right.

Bald cypress can be grown easily from seed. Seedlings must be grown to size in order to make them suitable individual bonsai subjects. Forest plantings of seedlings do well.

If you collect your own: bald cypress has a very light wood which is easily sawed. This makes collecting them with a cordless reciprocating saw a simple task, provided you can find specimens in very shallow water.

  • Cut the trunk to roughly 2’ in height.
  • Then make a cut on each side of the tree about 6-8” from the trunk, then plunge the saw blade (I always use a 12” pruning blade) underneath the trunk to sever the taproot.
  • Once you’re most of the way through you can push the tree over to snap the taproot, which makes sawing the rest of the way through a lot easier.
  • For most specimens, you should be able to lift the tree in five minutes or less.

Once it’s time to pot the tree initially, first wash off all the native soil. Then re-cut the roots closer to the trunk in anticipation of the eventual bonsai container.

New roots will sprout mostly from the cut ends of the larger roots, so dust near the ends with rooting powder.

Pot in prepared soil. Be sure to bury the surface roots to ensure they don’t dry out as the tree recovers.

As a final step, seal the cut end of the trunk with cut paste.

I always collect bald cypress in winter. Some enthusiasts collect in summer, and I’ve had some success doing so, but I always prefer winter.

Other Information

Watering: you can’t over water a bald cypress. Many growers stand their trees in a tray of water during summer, and this is an effective way to prevent sun-scorch. It’s not essential that cypress be constantly wet in the root zone, so as with other species a well-draining soil is recommended. This ensures that oxygen is pulled into the root zone frequently.

Feeding: either organic or inorganic at full strength during the growing season. No special requirements.

So What Do You Think?

This is a great tree for beginners or even seasoned bonsai artists. But I would really enjoy hearing your thoughts and your suggestions! I’m always happy to answer any questions you have. Just leave your comment(s) below and then expect to hear back from me.

Thanks!

Zach

13 Replies to “Best Bonsai Trees for Beginners – Bald Cypress”

  1. tim

    Hello Zach. My name is Tim and I am new to bonsai. Over the past eight months I have acquired several ficus and a fukien tea which have been easy to take care of and style. So far my only deciduous trees are some local maples, I think they are Norway, that I am experimenting with and a Chinese elm(straight trunk) I found on eBay. Through my online research I have really fell in love with the bald cypress and was wondering if u had any specimens that have been initially styled that I could purchase. I’m partial to the more formal upright but I’m definitely open to seeing pics of anything in my price range of a few hundred dollars. (I kno that’s not much as far as formal upright goes) also I live in new jersey between the pine barrens and the shore (I think zone 7) where temps from winter to summer vary greatly so wintering tips would be appreciated. I hope to here from u soon. Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Estevan Chavez

    In growing a bald cypress from seeds how do I get knees to grow at the base of the trunk? That’s a huge part of the beauty of the cypress do I keep the base covered in water or what?

    Thanks
    Estevan

    Reply
    • Zach Smith Post author

      You’ll need to keep the soil very moist or covered in water all the time to have a shot at getting knees to form. Be prepared to wait many years if growing from seed, and even then it’s not guaranteed. I have a couple of specimens planted in the ground that I grew from seed started in 2000. They’re approaching 20 feet tall, and sit in a low moist area of my yard. One of them just started pushing one knee a couple of years ago.

      If you grow your seedling/saplings in standing water, be sure to refresh the water frequently to ensure it stays oxygenated. Good luck!

      Reply
  3. Julia

    Hi,
    I’m completely new to bonsai (aside from accidentally killing one that was a gift). I just purchased a montezuma cypress sapling, and I would really like to train it into a bonsai. Do you have recommendations for someone completely new to bonsai (and the terminology)? I’ve planted it in a 2 gallon pot right now, but I’m wondering what are some first steps I should take now, if any.

    I appreciate any pointers, thank you!

    Reply
    • Zach Smith Post author

      Julia, I’m not sure what size your montezuma cypress sapling is, but I’d leave it alone until sometime next spring. At that time, depending on its size, you could do some selecting and wiring of branches. It might also be a good time to reduce the trunk height, but again that depends on its size. You should aim for a minimum trunk basal thickness of 1.5-2″ before trying to style the tree.

      I hope this helps.

      Reply
  4. mauricio

    Hi Zach!
    I am planning to make a bonsai forest of 3 Bald Cypress that I just found in the wild. I believe they are young, the trunk is about 1/4″ and 1 1/2′ tall. Should I plant them in a bonsai training pot now or should I plant them in a regular pot and let them grow more?
    And should I plant them together or separate?
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Zach Smith Post author

      Mauricio, ideally any forest should have trees with some variation in trunk size and height. If your three BC are the same size, it’s going to be tough to make a believable forest because you’ll have trouble creating an illusion of depth in the planting. I’d suggest planting them out for a couple of years, separately.

      Reply
  5. Colin King

    Hello,
    My name is Colin and i am fairly new to bonsai,but i do have a bald cypress about 5’00” tall and i am afraid to cut it to style him,can you help me to decide on a shape how to make it?

    Reply
    • Zach Smith Post author

      It depends on what your goal is. You can put together a forest planting in the spring. If their trunks are big enough you can make individual bonsai out of them. It sounds like these may be smaller specimens, so if your goal is individual bonsai they will need to be grown to size. Either plant in the ground or an oversize nursery container.

      Reply

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