The enduring beauty of the bayou

A cousin to the huge redwood and giant sequoia, the bald cypress easily ranks as the largest and longest living tree east of the Mississippi. Thousand-year-old, first-growth trees attain heights of 150' and diameters of 12'. In fact, bald cypress of this size have yielded 100,000 board feet of lumber per acre! However, typical stands average no more than 10,000 board feet.

Today, such huge, ancient trees are a rare find. Loggers locate some by probing the bottoms of swamps. These still-sound prizes—sunk long ago by clearing or storm—must be dredged from the water, and then airlifted to the sawmill.

Resistance to decay makes even the smaller, second-growth bald cypress ideal for outdoor construction. Yet, its attractiveness lends itself to indoor projects, too.

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), classified as a conifer, acts like a hardwood by turning brown or golden in the fall before dropping its needles. Immature trees form a conical shape; have thin, light brown bark; and look much like any other conifer. As a bald cypress ages, however, it begins to more closely resemble a hardwood.

Its trunk tapers and develops broad supports called buttresses at the base. The bark turns reddish brown, becomes deeply ridged, and peels. At maturity, bald cypress trees have large, uplifting branches forming a broad, irregular canopy.

Bald cypress prefers wet feet, and grows well in damp bottomlands and swamps from Delaware to south Florida, and along the Gulf Coast into Texas. Northward, it hugs river valleys through Oklahoma and Arkansas and up into Illinois and Indiana.

In swampy areas, bald cypress grows in stands. To help anchor the tree in a fragile bottom, its roots develop above-water shoots or knees for support. On drier ground, bald cypress mixes with hardwood species.

The wood weighs a bit less than walnut at 28 pounds per cubic foot dry. It has a yellow to pale-brown to reddish hue, and sometimes attractive figure. Bald cypress also feels slightly greasy or waxy. Heartwood has a peculiar, unpleasant odor.

Bald cypress wood rates as moderately hard, strong, and stable, with straight, close grain. Although fairly light, the wood holds nails and screws well. It also feels resinous, but this does not affect gluing.

Bald cypress works easily with both hand and power tools. And, the wood sands smoothly and grabs on to finishes quite tenaciously.

You can use bald cypress successfully for both indoor and outdoor projects. It works for furniture, paneling, cabinets, doors, windows, siding, decking, and trim. Boat-builders find bald cypress excellent for planking, and farmers use it for barn boards, water troughs, and fences.

In the South and southeastern United States, you'll find bald cypress at lumberyards. In other areas availability will be limited due to high shipping cost and the competition from western red cedar. Where you find it, bald cypress will cost about $1.50 per board foot. Faux satine crotch, a scarce veneer made from bald cypress crotch wood, occasionally shows up for commercial use in fine-furniture pieces and wall paneling.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson