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Cypress: the hardwood-like softwood.

Cypress trees are conifers, i.e., softwoods, but unlike most American softwoods, these trees are deciduous in that they shed foliage in the fall like hardwoods. The only other softwood that does that is larch (also called tamarack).

Cypress thrives in the South especially in wet, swampy areas. The main species in North America is Taxodium distichum, but others of note include pond cypress, Taxodium ascendens, and Mexican or montezuma cypress, Taxodium mucronatum.

Cypress, or baldcypress as it is commonly known in the United States, grows in a range along the Atlantic Coastal Plain from Delaware to Florida and west along the Gulf of Mexico's coast to the Mexican border in Texas and north up the Mississippi Valley through southern Indiana. This water-loving tree thrives in the swampy areas of Florida and the lower Mississippi Valley.

Although cypress is a softwood, it has traditionally been grouped and manufactured with hardwoods. The simple reasons for that is that is grows alongside hardwoods. Cypress is graded by the rules of the National Hardwood Lumber Assn. and also the Southern Cypress Manufacturers Assn., a branch of the Hardwood Manufacturers Assn.

Peckiness no problem

Cypress trees are well-known as ornamentals, but the trees are commercially valuable too. Paul Ifju, of the SCMA in Pittsburgh, Pa., said cypress has many exterior and interior uses. "Cypress is a naturally decay-resistant wood and its uses reflect that. It is a popular choice for building construction, posts, beams, decks, docking, porch flooring, greenhouses, siding and stadium seats." Cypress is also used to make caskets, doors, blinds, sash and other types of millwork. Because of its watertightness, it is also used for cooperage, shingles, in tanks, vats, ship and boat building and to make railroad cars. Fine grain cypress is used to make custom cabinetry.

Some grades are used for architectural uses such as paneling. "Pecky cypress," said Ifju, "is especially popular for paneling." Pecky cypress occurs when the wood is attacked by fungus, resulting in pockets or localized areas. "The wood is no longer useful for water-tight uses, but when cut, it yields an attractive look."

The origin of pecky cypress is still a mystery. Pathologists who have studied the fungus are not sure of its exact origin or why it attacks only certain logs. Pecky cypress is considered an actual grade, but the supply is small compared to other grades of cypress.

Color coordinated to locality

Cypress is a yellowish-red color, often considered almost salmon colored in appearance. The color of the wood is somewhat determined by the growth area. Many experts believe that wood from the southern, swampy areas is darker in color than baldcypress, which is grown on dry land. Some cypress features light streaks on a darker background.

When freshly cut, the wood has a sour odor which it loses. It will not stain or add taste to things stored in cypress vats.

The SCMA said there is an abundant supply of cypress "with most mills reporting ample stocks in a wide range of dimensions."

Producers are interested in expanding the market for cypress in the United States, from lumber to finished products such as siding, paneling, and door casings, the association said. Cypress has been a popular item in its growth regions, but Ifju said other areas of the country are taking a look at cypress because of its durability and because it can be used in many of the same products as cedar and redwood. In the South, cypress "competes" with southern yellow pine.

For example, cypress is specified in the building codes on Hilton Head, S.C., where architects began using it for its distinctive look and its durable nature. Ifju said the durability comes from cypressene, the natural preservative manufactured during the growth of cypress.

Another reason for its popularity is that the lumber can be easily painted. Ifju said in official tests of paint retention, cypress qualified as one of the woods that can hold paint longer. The tests show that cypress is an economical wood to paint because of its high paint retention. Unpainted, the wood will last for hundreds of years. The wood does not normally check or warp.

Ifju said the supply of cypress is good now, but harvesting is tied into the weather. Since the trees thrive in wet swampy areas, some removal can be a problem. Some cypress trees are logged by helicopter. "Our statistics show that growth of cypress is greater than removal," said Ifju.

Cypress roots love water. Some trees growing on wet sites develop what is called cypress "knees," which are really pneumatophores. The knee-like upright growths come from the roots. The knees help to support the tree and also aerate the waterlogged root system. The wood from the knees is soft and light and can be used to make vases and novelty items.

Cypress trees often have buttresses. Trees cut for commercial lumber are often sliced above the base where swelling occurs. The swelling is common in trees that grow in swampy areas and acts as extra support for the tree.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Wood of the Month
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:May 1, 1993
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