Swamp Thing

Water-loving cypress has taken a hit from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but when dried offers durability and good looks.

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Cypress brings a lot to the table. Its good looks and easy workability are matched with durability and natural resistance to decay. Add to that good strength properties, plus a surface that can be painted or stained well, and it is easy to see why cypress earns praise. And although cypress has felt the wrath of the 2005 hurricanes, industry experts foresee a bright future for the wood.

Southern cypress, as cypress is commonly referred to, is an important Southern timber, found primarily in swampy conditions in the Atlantic Coastal Plain, from Delaware to Florida. Cypress' natural growth area includes all the Gulf states but can be found as far north as Illinois and Indiana, and west into Texas. The trees thrive in wet, low bottomlands and swampy areas where the tree's distinctive "knees" are often visible. The cypress knees area, technically called pneumatophores, are really upright growths from the roots, said to help support the trees while aerating the underwater root system. The Southern Cypress Manufacturers Assn. describes the wood from the knees as "soft and light and can be used to make vases and novelty items."

The wood also offers a variety of applications, both indoors and out. Its exterior applications include: siding, shingles, shutters, windows, doors, exterior furniture, trim, fencing and landscape elements.

Family Name

Taxodium distichum of the Family Taxodiaceae

Common Names

Cypress, Southern cypress, bald cypress, baldcypress, Louisiana cypress, red, white, yellow, and black cypress, swamp cypress, buck cypress, cow cypress, tidewater red cypress


Trees can grow from 120 to 150 feet tall with trunk diameters of 3 to 5 feet, often above buttressed bases. Average height: 100 feet. Average weight: 32 pounds per cubic foot.


The wood seasons well under proper conditions and the heartwood is extremely resistant to decay. Experts recommend using sharp cutting edges with cypress. The wood also paints and finishes well, and glues satisfactorily.

Color of cypress will vary according to the region where it grows.

Southern Cypress Manufacturers Assn. experts say cypress should be kiln dried to the range of 10 to 12 percent moisture content. To dry the wettest pieces without over drying the driest pieces, equalize the equilibrium moisture content in the kiln to 11 percent.

Air drying cypress is done with the same principles as above and may take a period of several months. Attention to moisture content will minimize problems with splitting and warping, SCMA experts add.

Interior uses include: paneling, doors, mouldings, mantels, cabinetry, furniture, countertops, wooden drainboards and flooring. Southern cypress, as cypress is commonly referred to, also is an excellent choice for vats and tanks, greenhouse construction, silos, boats and coffins. Cypress is especially valued for its durability, which is in part due to cypressene, a natural oil found in the wood.

Donald Elder, president and owner of Elder Forest Products in Crowley, LA, markets baldcypress. Elder is a past president of the SCMA in the past and has been in the lumber business for 51 years. "Cypress is more than just a regional favorite. Historically, it was a wood used and consumed in its own growing region, but cypress has become a favorite throughout the U.S. and some is exported outside the United States," Elder says.

While cypress is popular and in ready supply, Elder says it is not the most highly-used domestic softwood or construction timber. "I tell people there are mills in California, Washington and Oregon that produce more pine, Ponderosa pine or Douglas fir in one year than all of the cypress put together. In fact, some mills produce more lumber in three months than all of the cypress cut in one year," he says. "You don't see many big cypress-only mills. There just isn't enough cypress to sustain a big mill."

Elder, who describes his business location as halfway between Katrina and Rita, lost power for 10 days after Katrina hit but suffered no other damage from the storm. He is not sure how the cypress trees have faired, but expects that the storm may have damaged cypress supplies.

Bill Bell, president of the SCMA, is a part owner of two cypress sawmills, one in St. Cloud, FL, and another in Roseland, LA, just over 70 miles north of New Orleans. He has been part of the Forest Resource Recovery Team, a group of government officials and industry members studying the impact that hurricanes Katrina and Rita have had on Louisiana. The group is assessing the damage and trying to come up with ways to replenish forests as well as make use of downed timber.

"We believe cypress damage will be significant, but because the trees often grow in wet locations and tend to have a unique root system, they are able to withstand damage from storms better than other trees," Bell says.

Bell has seen cypress use change in the last decade or so, due to a campaign by the SCMA. "In the last 15 to 20 years, the SCMA has worked hard to educate the market about cypress. The result is a wider acceptance in new markets around the U.S., as well as growing exports of cypress," he says.


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