Arizona Cypress: Drought Tolerant or a Fine Specimen Christmas Tree?

Its retained cones look like jingle bells

An opened cone with another closed

The Arizona cypress, also known as roughbark Arizona cypress, is native to the southwest United States and Mexico. Like the Modoc cypress this one has many Latin names, the oldest of which was assigned in the late 1800s. (Cupressus benthamii Endl. var. arizonica (Greene) Mast).

The spiny-looking leaves may sport tiny white dots, which are resin glands The jury is out on whether these give the tree a pleasant evergreen essence or an unpleasant smell. With the white dots covering many of the scaly leaves, it can look as if the tree has a case of dandruff!

Scaly leaves of the Arizona Cypress

Oddly, unlike the Modoc Cypress, this tree has been used and grown as a Christmas tree, especially in the South. It reportedly is popular in pick-your-own lots, as a container Christmas tree, or in the garden. With its cones retained into winter looking like jingle bells, it isn’t hard to see why this might be a seasonal favorite.

Although this cypress normally grows in areas with as little as 10″ of moisture, the above referenced sources say it grows well in South Carolina, but the US Forest Service doesn’t consider it suited to the eastern US. Once established in the landscape, it is low maintenance and drought tolerant. Dirr and Warren suggest the tree, which can grow as tall as 90 feet and in its native habitat is listed as reaching 50-60 feet, will more likely  reach 40 to 50 feet in the Southeast.* Other authors caution the tree might be susceptible to diseases and pests under more humid conditions. Unfortunately, the species may also suffer in extended droughts. Weakened trees in their native environment are subject to cypress bark beetle colonization, which ultimately may lead to death.

Shredding branch
Reddish branch

The trunk and branches of this cypress may be shreddy and red in color. The USDA plant guide suggests branch and trunk differences might be related to different sub-species of this conifer. Its Latin name is up for grabs. The scientific name of this species has been Hesperocyparis arizonica, Callitropsis arizonica, Neocupressis arizonica, or Cupressus arizonica, which may be the currently preferred scientific moniker.

The wood of the tree has been used for posts and little else. Arizona Cypress is sometimes planted as a specimen tree for interest in the landscape. It may also be used as a windbreak or to assist with erosion control.Only a few sources list it of any interest to wildlife. It may be a host to various moths and butterflies or a source of food for squirrels and other rodents.

There is limited information on uses of this plant medicinally or as a food source. One author states it can be used in smudge sticks and in preparations may have anti-fungal and anti-mold properties. The author goes so far as to indicate it could be useful as a wash in fighting MRSA infections. Most other sources don’t consider cypress trees as having any edible parts or known medicinal properties. 

To find C179 Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica) in City Park, go to the southeast corner of the intersection of City Park and Sheldon Drive. Find the metal and wood bench in the middle of the field. The nicely pyramidal tree south behind the bench is the Arizona Cypress. At the right time of day it may appear to shimmer due to its grey-green leaves.

Arizona Cypress in a field in City Park, Fort Collins, Colorado

*Dirr, Michael A. & Warren, Keith S., The Tree Book: Superior Selections for Landscapes, Streetscapes, and Gardens. Timber Press, 2019.














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