Thrusting slender dark fingers into the cloudless blue sky, the Italian Cypress has become a symbol of Tuscany, Italy and the Provence region of France. Many travelers recognize it, even if they couldn’t put a name to it. Clustered on hillsides, planted as avenues along grand entrances to palaces, or clipped into drought-resistant hedges, this plant is found widely all along the Mediterranean, and in warmer parts of America too. Yet it remains relatively underused, and often overlooked as a wonderful choice for specimens and screens, either grown naturally or clipped as needed. With its incredible drought resistant and ability to withstand heat and fire too, it is perfect for the hottest and driest places. Yet it thrives in more temperate areas too, and it is hardy at least in zone 7, and probably also in colder areas with dry winters. It could easily be exactly the plant you need.
Italian Cypress – Cupressus semperivens
This tree originally grew in Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, northern Iran, and on islands like Crete and Cyprus, and probably Tunisia and Libya too. Today it is found growing all around the Mediterranean, from Spain, through France and Italy, along the north of Africa, and in all the Middle East, the result of thousands of years of planting and self-seeding. It is found in sunny, dry areas, on all kinds of soils other than wet ones. Although often seen in Florida, it prefers areas with lower humidity, and it is more prone to disease in wet and humid regions. It is a long-lived tree, with many examples of trees living for hundreds of years. The oldest tree, the Cypress of Abarkuh in Iran, is thought to be over 4,000 years old.
The wild tree is very variable, and a batch of seedlings will give a whole range of plants, from the familiar tall, slender profile to wide spreading trees with a broad form and many rising branches. In its most common narrow form, it will grow to be between 60 and 100 feet tall, and yet remain as little as 5 feet wide in the best forms, but plants from seed can be much wider.
This tree has a strong central trunk, which in time can become several feet thick, when grown as a specimen tree. The bark is smooth and dark gray for a long time, eventually becoming dark gray-brown, with deep vertical furrows. Because the foliage is kept close to the ground for many, many years, the branches and trunk are not important features of this tree.
The leaves are tiny, like diamond-shaped scales, arranged in four rows along the younger stems. They are very dark green. The young growth is thin, with each stem about one-twentieth of an inch thick, and these stems grow out in all directions, unlike the flattened sprays of plants like arborvitae (Thuja). The plant is evergreen – which is what ‘sempervirens’ means in Latin, and sprays of foliage last several years before falling as the tree develops.
The Italian Cypress is a conifer, so it doesn’t have flowers, but cones. These are not much like the well-known pine or fir cones. Both male and female cones are seen on the same tree. In late winter the tiny male cones, which are only one-fifth of an inch long, shed their pollen. Female cones are larger, growing eventually into a round ball, about 1½ inch across, made up of 8 to 14 flat scales, usually with a raised center. These are green, and take almost 2 years to mature, when they turn brown, and eventually split open along the seams between the scales, shedding the seeds. It often takes fire to make the cones open, and mature brown cones may last for many years, still closed.
Varieties of the Italian Cypress
For a plant that has been in gardens for so long, there are very few different varieties, especially compared to many other evergreens. In fact, the ordinary tree seen in gardens is a special variety, called officially ‘var. sempervirens’, since it is much more upright and narrower than most wild trees. Those trees are technically called ‘forma horizontalis’. Since garden trees are invariably the upright form, this distinction is only very rarely mentioned.
Golden Italian Cypress
Correctly called Swane’s Gold’ or sometimes listed as Swane’s Golden’, this is the only variety with yellow foliage, which is keeps all year round. It is slower growing, and very slender, reaching perhaps 10 feet tall in 10 years, but being only 12 inches wide. It is a great choice for a planter or pot. It was discovered in the 1940s by Norman Swane, at his nursery in Ermington, Australia. He spotted a group of seedlings growing in the nursery, all with some golden leaves. he grew them for a while and selected the best one, which he called ‘Swane’s Gold’. It was first sold in 1956.
Blue Italian Cypress
This variety, usually called ‘Glauca’, which means ‘blue’ has blue-green foliage, rather than the natural dark green of the Italian Cypress. Otherwise it is very similar, and it makes an interesting contrast tree, and a unique specimen. Its origin is unknown, but it was almost certainly an unusual seedling spotted by someone.
Graceful Italian Cypress
Although seen listed with the name ‘Gracilis’, this form is almost never seen. It is reputed to be small, reaching no more than 5 feet in 10 years.
Uses in the Garden
In gardens the Italian Cypress can be grown many different ways. For a tall but narrow screen it cannot be beaten, giving lots of height without growing very wide at all. It can be left to grow naturally, or clipped into beautiful dense hedges, whose rich dark color is the perfect backdrop for flowering trees and shrubs. For accent specimens its ‘exclamation mark’ form stands out, in beds or on lawns. It can be used informally, alone or in groups of 3 or 5, or formally, at the corners of a square or rectangle, or in the center of a circular bed or paved area. A pair is perfect for framing a door or entrance, and it looks majestic and striking as an avenue along paths and driveways. For this, space the plants at least 8 feet apart, so they remain as individuals, and don’t grow into a wall of green.
For containers too, the Italian Cypress looks splendid in large tubs and planters, alone for dramatic effect, or surrounded by smaller tumbling shrubs and other plants. It will grow for many years in pots, and it is drought-resistant enough to survive the occasional period of missed watering. Do not grow it in containers in zone 7, as winter root damage may occur.
Young trees of the Italian Cypress are fast-growing, and they can add 2 or 3 feet in height every year for several years, after the year they are planted. This means that specimens will soon add a real presence to your garden, and that hedges and screens will soon be tall enough to do their job. Older trees add between 5 and 12 inches a year, depending on growing conditions – trimmed trees produce more growth, as the trimming stimulates them to grow. Within 10 years a small tree will be at least 10 feet tall, and generally taller, if it has received good care.
The wood of the Italian Cypress is fragrant, and it repels moths, like cedar, so it has been used for many centuries to make trunks to store clothing and linens. Because the wood is very durable, items made with it last for a very long time.
This tree has been associated with death and the underworld for thousands of years, (which may contribute to it no being more widely grown). In Europe and the Middle East old trees are often found in cemeteries. Equally, it is widely used as a symbol of holidays in the sun, and often seen on travel brochures and posters. The tradition is that its wood was used to build Noah’s Ark.
The Italian Cypress is easy to grow, in sun and well-drained soil, in all the warmer zones of the country. It is found growing in all warm countries, including Australia.
Always plant this tree is full sun. Especially in cooler zones it will not grow as well with even a little shade, although in hot, dry zones it will tolerate a little afternoon shade in summer.
The Italian Cypress is easy to grow in most soils. It tolerates both acidic and alkaline soils, and grows in sandy, rocky soils as well as in clay. The soil must be well-drained, and damp soil will bring problems. If the area is not well-drained, plant on a low mound of soil, and avoid overwatering, once it has become established.
While newly-planted trees should be watered once a week for a while, until the roots grow out, after that supplementary watering is rarely needed. If you have automatic irrigation, be careful that this tree doesn’t get overwatered. This tree is very drought resistant, and older trees have no problems with dry periods stretching even for months. This low need for water makes it perfect for xeric gardening, and in areas where bans are often in place for watering your garden in summer – this is one tree that won’t mind at all.
The Italian Cypress likes heat and sun, so it is not remarkably winter hardy, being listed only to zone 7. But trees are often seen in cooler zones where winters are dry, and winter damp is more of an enemy than the cold. Some studies show it is hardy to minus 4 degrees (F), which suggest it would be hardy even in zone 5, but probably only in places with very dry winters.
This tree will grow well in zones 9, 10 and 11, tolerating long periods of high temperatures, especially where it is not too humid. In hot, humid areas, such as Florida, it will grow well, but avoid over-watering, and do not spray the foliage with water – from sprinklers for example.
The Italian Cypress comes from areas where wildfires are natural, and this can be seen by the fact that the cones often need fire to open them and release the seeds. In fires these trees have survived when other trees around them have burned. Because of this it is a top-choice for areas subject to fire, such as California. Studies and trials are being carried out in Spain to test this tree for fire-resistance, and in a fire in Spain in 2012, that destroyed 50,000 acres, only 12 trees were burned in a group of almost 1,000 trees.
Pest and Diseases
Like all trees, Italian Cypress can be affected by pests and diseases. However almost all the serious diseases it might suffer from (such as Phytophthora Root Rot, or Phomopsis Tip Blight), are seen in plants growing in too much shade, damp soil, areas with poor air circulation, or a combination of these factors. Cypress Canker (Seiridium) can also affect it, but again stress, such as freezing, or extreme drought on poorly-established trees, is an important factor.
The only pests sometimes seen are Bagworms, which are unsightly but not deadly, and spider mites, which can be more serious, but are often seasonal or periodic. Overall, this tree is considered very resistant to pests and diseases, and only rarely suffers from them.
Young plants, and those grown for hedges, should be fertilized with a fertilizer blended for evergreens. Young plants respond best to liquid fertilizers, but older trees are most efficiently fed with granular foods. Feed in early spring, just before new growth begins, and again in early fall, if needed. Untrimmed plants need less fertilizer than trimmed ones, since trimming removes growth that the plant must then replace.
Trimming and pruning
For that perfect neat specimen or hedge, trimming is needed, but this tree is naturally dense, compact and upright, and it will always look great, even if it is never trimmed. However, it does respond well to trimming, developing dense growth quickly, and it can be trained into columns or flame-shapes easily. Hedges should always be trimmed with the top narrower than the bottom, so that the lower parts receive light, and remain green and healthy. Trimming can be done at any time in warmer zones, but in cooler areas avoid late fall and winter, as new growth could be damaged by cold.