April Wisdom from the Trees

Tree of the Month

Baldcypress - Taxodium distitchum

by Gilbert A Smith

ISA Certified Master Arborist

Baldcypress in Southern IL by Lesley Bruce Smith

Baldcypress in Southern IL by Lesley Bruce Smith

I bet that you didn’t know that Baldcypress trees are native Illinois residents.  Cypress Gardens in Florida gets its name from its beautiful groves of Baldcypress. But a Cypress growing in Florida isn’t as hard to believe as a Cypress native to Illinois.  

A victim of common name confusion, Baldcypress is not a Cypress (Cupressus)  at all but a Taxodium.  Taxodium (like a Yew)  distitchum (leaves in pairs along the branches).  

Baldcypress is also confusing because it is a needle bearing tree like a Spruce but after displaying a vibrant burgundy fall color, it looses all its needles.  This is where it gets its name “Bald”.  

We have found them growing naturally as far North as Bloomington, Illinois. The species originally lived in huge 500 to 1000 year old groves in the Southeast. One ancient tree which is called ‘El Tule’ (the name means aquatic plant) near Oaxaca, Mexico may be 4000 years old. In the U.S. these ancients were logged out because the wood has a natural resistance to rot.  Rot resistance served the building industry and Railroads. (Think railroad ties and bridges). Unfortunately the rot resistance doesn’t develop until the tree matures beyond 200 years old.    


Baldcypress KneesHere’s another peculiarity of Baldcypress, they like to grow under water. Normally tree roots drown in water. In fact all tree roots respire like we do, need oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, just like we do, and survive because 50% of healthy soil is comprised of ‘air space’. So, how do those tricky Baldcypress roots breathe under water? To date, no one knows. Some people guess that they breathe through the knobby protuberances called ‘knees’ that stick up above the water but it’s only a guess.

Despite its identity confusion, Baldcypress is an under used gem that will thrive in our Chicago area landscapes. Please consider it when you have to replant dying Ash trees. (see also our list of replanting options on our website)  But watch out, they grow fast, get big, and may last through the next millennium.

Low branches, to cut or not

Backyard Wisdom by Gilbert A Smith 

ISA Certified Master Arborist

stately Corktree at the Morton Arboretum Low Branches by Gilbert A Smith

stately Corktree at the Morton Arboretum Low Branches by Gilbert A Smith

Often a first complaint that I hear from new homeowners is, “This place feels like a jungle, please cut all of the low branches out of my way.” Also among the first to be cut by landscapers are those pesky low branches that knock them off their lawn mower.

So I know that I’m fighting an uphill battle when I suggest that you think twice before you cut those lovely low branches off of your trees.  Because....

        1 - They will never grow back.

        2 - There are other options.

        3 - Low branches add balance, strength, health, and grace to your trees.

Forty-five years ago when I was training to be an arborist it was common practice to “skin” all of the low branches off of trees.

Low Branches by Gilbert A Smith

Low Branches by Gilbert A Smith

Since then research has shown that removing the low branches and even ‘suckers’ will leave the tree weaker and more susceptible to storm failure and breakage. A healthy tree, we have learned, has at least 1/3 of its branches on the lower 1/2 of the tree.

Of course you often must remove a few low branches if they are hitting cars, trucks or people. But it is harmful to the trees and they will be made more dangerous if you trim too much.

So what are the options? There are many ways to leave your low branches and plan around them. The easiest way,  which is what the Chicago Botanic Garden does, is to mulch under the trees and shrubs out to the branch spread. This is good for your trees for many reasons (see our Mulching Abstract), its good for your lawn and your lawn mower operator.

Let’s face it, grass doesn’t like to grow under trees and trees don’t like grass on their roots. Its a win/win when you return your trees to a forest garden, removing the prairie/lawn from beneath them; allowing them to recycle their leaves beneath their branches.

The option we prefer is to leave a few low structure branches to reach down and embrace your landscape. They tie the heavens to the earth. If you do not mulch beneath them you may need to duck when you mow, but you can lean on them when you need a rest. Just think, if you let your kids have a branch that is within reach, they will develop and always keep a fond connection to nature.

Avoid the deadly sins of Spring clean-up

Mother Nature's Moment

by Lesley Bruce Smith ISA Certified Arborist


Every spring Gilbert and I notice things that are done by hundreds of landscapers and homeowners that are deadly practices when it comes to their trees and shrubs.  We are bringing them to your attention to let you know that there is a better way, and so that you can alert your landscape professional that you do not want these things practiced on your property!Correct Spring Clean Up by Lesley Bruce Smith

Leaf Blowing


Spring clean-up can be a beautiful thing. It is great to be out in the garden enjoying the sweet smell of the soil and the light fragrance of the newly emerging flowers. Spring Clean Up Instructions by Lesley Bruce Smith (My condolences to those of you that suffer from spring allergies.) However, it seems a crime to include the “blowing” of leaves out from under your trees and shrubs as part of the process.  Those leaves are a natural mulch layer that helps to prevent moisture loss from the roots of the trees, it helps to moderate soil temperature, it assists in soil aeration, it helps to provide natural fertilizer and it does all of this for FREE!


Then we use non-renewable fossil fuels to blow all that good stuff out from under our trees in the name of clean-up.  Save that kind of clean-up for the kid’s bedroom...and leave your leaves alone!!  Usually by April or early May they are mostly decomposed or eaten by the worms doing their jobs fertilizing and aerating.  I have two photos here that show  an area that was “cleaned up” by an army of leaf blowing landscapers and an adjacent area that was left natural.Natural Spring Clean-Up Results

Stay tuned, next month:

    • shearing trees and shrubs

    • the use of post emergent broadleaf herbicide