A Gardening Journal

Standards of dwarf bald cypress

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Bright green growth so soft it could be moss.  But this is a dwarf bald cypress.  'Cody's Feathers' will grow, slowly, into a mossy-green ball four feet tall and wide. 

 

I've had the bush grafted atop the trunk of a regular "straight-up" bald cypress, so the look (at least long-term) will be a ball on a stick.  Any plant with that profile is called a "standard."  I've got a quartet of standards of 'Cody's Feathers', one at each corner of the crossing of the garden's main axis with a side path into the north and south Red Gardens. 

 

When the Red Gardens are at their reddest—June through September—the 'Feathers' will be green spherical sculpture to accompany the oranges, whites, reds, and burgundies of these Gardens.  But in Fall, the 'Feathers' bring their own hues into play.  The mossy-green foliage turns a warm orange, and the bizarre bald-cypress cones turn aqua, for heaven's sake, pointed up by scattered points of orange. 

 

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The "cones" look more like Jurassic eggs.

 

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Could any garden ever have too many such blue balls?  Conveniently, 'Cody's Feathers' is particularly prolific.  In a few years, each of my quartet of 'Feathers' should be spangled with dozens of them.

 

 

Here's how to grow this eccentric dwarf conifer:

Latin Name

Taxodium distichum 'Cody's Feathers'

Common Name

'Cody's Feathers' bald cypress

Family

Cupressaceae, the Cypress family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous dwarf conifer, grafted to make a standard.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 10 

Habit

Irregular when young, gathering fullness and roundness with age.  (Sound familiar?)  

Rate of Growth

Slow.

Size in ten years

To three or four feet across and tall.  Grafted atop a four-foot trunk of the straight species, this means that the standard could get seven to eight feet tall.

Texture

Feathery and ferny.  Taxodium foliage starts out soft in Spring and stays soft the entire growing season.  Bald cypresses are "bald" in that they drop their leaves in the Fall, so the texture in Winter is comparatively spartan.  But because this is a dwarf, the twigginess is denser—and therefore better— than usual. 

Grown for

its rarity: Taxodium, the species, is a ramrod-straight, tall, conical conifer that usually (and especially when grown with any near neighbors) loses its lower limbs as it matures.  'Cody's Feathers' is a dwarf that doesn't develop even the hint of an upright main stem (which would be referred to, appropriately, as the "leader").  It is rarely grafted as high as mine—atop four-foot individuals of the species—and to have a quartet of the resultant standards is unique.   

 

its habit: Soft light-green Taxodium foliage is too good just to have on a huge tree, especially when your garden, as mine, is "only" an acre and a half.  I need to think twice even about having a low ball of any plant that's three or four feet across.  Putting that ball atop an extremely narrow pole—the trunk of the species Taxodium—is the way to have the most fun but with the tiniest of foot-prints.  

 

its Spring and Summer foliage: soft and feathery, Taxodium foliage is also the bright Spring-fresh green color all season, because the plant just keeps growing new foliage all season.  (Because the foliage is dropped in Fall anyway, there's no need to take the time to harden it up for Winter.  By contrast, the usual evergreen conifers grow their new crop of foliage only in the Spring, and then mature it the rest of the Summer in preparation for the stresses of the coming Winter.)

 

its Fall foliage: As with the two other species of deciduous conifer—Larix (larch) and Metasequoia (dawn redwood)— Taxodium  foliage becomes beautifully colorful in the Fall.  Taxodium and Metasequoia foliage becomes a warm orange-leather before falling; Larix foliage, butter yellow.

 

its cones: Taxodium "cones" are actually spheres the size of ping-pong balls—blue spheres at that—with a rhino-hide surface.  'Cody' bears cones precociously as well as profusely.  A tree spangled with a particularly heavy crop of blue balls?  Sounds essential to me.  

Flowering season

Taxodium flowers in earliest Spring.  As usual for conifers, whose flowers are air-pollinated and, hence, petal-free (the petals would only get the way), the flowers aren't showy.  The cones, though?  They're the thing, and they appear in the Summer. 

Culture

Full sun.  In the wild, Taxodium favors flat ground near fresh water, and is quite tolerant of seasonal flooding even if it's sustained.  Few gardens can provide the same, but Taxodium is also happy with locations that don't flood at all, as long as they have decent soil and enough water that the trees aren't always scrounging for water.

How to handle it

Taxodium grow in almost any soil that isn't dry, from flood-plains that really do get flooded, to regular soil that never does.  Deep soil (which is what flood-plain soil usually is, built up from years of flood-born silting) is preferred, as is full sun.  Taxodium will also handle heavy and compacted soil, which is similar, at least in terms of oxygen deprivation, to the alluvial soils that get regular flooding. 

 

All of this "fun in the mud" siting notwithstanding, it's better to plant your 'Cody's Feathers' standard in regularly-draining soil, which will provide a better anchor for the young plant than soil that, even temporarily, can turn into soft mud.  

 

Because 'Cody's Feathers' standards are made by grafting, it's important to keep branches from the "host trunk" clipped off.  They would otherwise grow into the full-size branches of the species, whereas the dwarf 'Cody's Feathers' at the top of the trunk will never get larger than a few feet.  This is somewhat more of an issue with such a high graft as mine, where the host trunk is that much older and more vigorous.  You'll only need to be vigilant for a few seasons. As 'Cody's Feathers' gets larger and older, it suppresses the growth below—on the host trunk in this case.

 

Taxodium grows fastest in climates with hot Summers; if you're gardening in Seattle or in London, growth will be much flower.

 

I got my 'Feathers' custom-grafted at Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut.  They don't ship large plants, but do a thriving retail business on-site.  You could also grow 'Feathers' as a ground-level ball instead of as a standard.  Just be sure that it doesn't get shaded by any of its neighbors:  It matures to a perfect sphere only in full sun.

Downsides

Taxodium is susceptible to several pests, but more often when growing in multitudes in their native habitat rather than when growing in what is usually real isolation in this or that particular garden.  I've had no problems with mine.

Variants

Taxodium provides a fast-broadening spectrum of delight.  More cultivars appear yearly, it seems, and are now available with habits from mounding and dwarf, to contorted and semi-dwarf, to upright but still dwarf (and with extra-dense foliage as well), to weeping but full-size or weeping in full cascade.  The foliage can be green, gold, variegated, or notably short and stubby.  There's room in even the smallest full-sun garden for one of the dwarfs, whereas no really large garden should pass up the opportunity to have a grove of one of the upright versions.  It's a living cathedral, a religious experience.

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

By grafting.

Native habitat

Taxodium distichum  is native to the southeast US.

 
 
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