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What is a Nootka Cypress Tree?

Learn more about the Nootka Cypress Tree, what it looks like, how it reproduces, where it usually grows, and the different conditions that can damage it or make it thrive.

This is a close look at the top foliage of a nootka cypress tree.

Cupressus Nootkatensis/ Chamaecyparis Nootkatensis ‘Pendula’

The Nootka cypress tree goes by many names. They are also referred to as the yellow cypress, weeping cypress, weeping Nootka cypress, weeping Alaskan cedar, Alaskan cypress, Alaskan cedar, Nootka cedar, yellow cedar, and finally, the Alaskan yellow cedar. The epithet nootkatensis comes from the First Nations people of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, that goes by the name Nuu-chah-nulth.

This conifer evergreen tree is native to only the coastal regions of northwestern North America. The Caren range that can be found in British Columbia is where the oldest Nootka cypress tree grows. It is 1834. That may not seem particularly old compared to say the Bristlecone pine tree, but it is considering that the average life expectancy of Nootka cypress trees is only 70 years!

The Nootka cypress was originally placed in the genus Cupressus but was then moved to the genus Chamaecyparis because of the similar flattened foliage sprays as the genus. However, not everyone agrees with this placement as the morphology of the trees’ cones are far more similar to trees found in the genus Cupressus.

If you’re feeling curious about some other trees, look no further than right here! We’ve compiled a crazy list of 101 Types of Trees from all over the world. No matter how small, large, exotic, or local, we have much to learn about the tree community.

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Related: Arizona Cypress Tree | Patagonia Cypress Tree

The Origin Story of the Nootka Cypress

There is a legend from the Hesquiaht First Nations community that describes the origins of the Nootka cypress tree. With a tree so majestic and unique looking, it surely has a special story behind it.

It is said that a raven came upon 3 young women who were busy drying salmon on a beach. The raven went on to ask the women what they were afraid of. Were they afraid of bears? Of wolves? Of being alone?

Each of the 3 women said no to all of the raven’s questions until the raven asked if they were afraid of owls. The women all said that they were afraid of owls, which gave the trickster raven an idea.

The raven flew away and hid in the trees and began to imitate the call of an owl. The women, now scared, ran up the side of the mountain to hide from the owl call, leaving their drying salmon unattended.

The raven took its chance to grab their unattended salmon, while the women got lost up in the mountains. The women eventually turned into Nootka trees, and this is why the Nootka grows where it does. This is why the Nootka has foliage smooth like a woman’s hair, and why the trunk is smooth like a woman’s body.

What do Nootka Cypress Trees Look Like?

Root System

Cypress roots tend to develop very wide and laterally spreading root systems. They do not grow very deep into the soil, but they will grow more widely than the spread of the crown. This widespread helps protect the tree against storms and windthrow.

Because cypress trees tend to grow in areas that are very moist, much like the west coast of North America, they do not need to develop taproots in order to access moisture reserves deep in the earth.

Dimensions

Nootka cypresses are tall trees, and will commonly reach heights of up to 40 meters. They have rather narrow trunks but very widely spreading branches.

This is a close look at a mature nootka cypress tree on the side of a park walkway.

Growth Pattern

The easiest way to identify the Nootka cypress is by its unique shape. The inclusion of ‘pendula’ in its scientific name is not an accident, for the tree has very lovely pendulous branches/weeping branches. This gives the tree a very graceful sweeping appearance (very reminiscent of Tim Burton-like animation!). The crown is arranged in a rough pyramidal fashion, with drooping branchlets that sweep upwards near the ends comprised of foliage flattened sprays.

Bark

This is a close look at the bark of a Nootka cypress tree with label.

Nootka cypress bark is a very light brown color that peels away in narrow strips.

Foliage

Nootka cypress leaves are small and scale-like. They are arranged in flat sprays of scale leaves. Each scale is only 5mm long, with many scales emerging from a single twig. These leaves are a very dark green color and are arranging in long trailing curtains on a branch.

How do Nootka Cypress Trees Reproduce?

Cones

This is a close look at the cones of a nootka cypress tree.

Cypress trees are dioecious, meaning that male cones and female cones will occur on different trees. This means that these trees are wind-pollinated. A pollen cone (male cone) will release pollen which will then be windblown towards a seed cone (female cone) which will then become fertilized.

Cones have 4 scales and looking very similar to the cones of the Mexican cypress tree (Cupressus lusitanica). Cones are very small, globose, and dark green – kind of resembling a caper! A pollen cone will dry out at maturity to release the pollen.

What are the Damaging Agents of the Nootka Cypress Tree?

Climate Change

This is a close look at the branches and foliage of the nootka cypress tree.

In Alaska, where Nootka cypress trees are referred to as yellow cedar, are experiencing very large-scale die-offs. This is because trees in that region are very dependent on super heavy snowpack that helps insulate the trees’ shallow roots in the bitter winters.

Since climate change is drastically changing annual temperatures, the snowpack has become much thinner (due to less precipitation) and therefore the roots are no longer protected from the freezing temperatures. This has resulted in the mortality of nearly 7% of trees in those regions, and the numbers are only going up.

Phytophthora Root Diseases

Nootka cypress trees are particularly susceptible to phytophthora root and stem rot. This is a soil-borne fungal disease that is caused by the fungus Phytophthora sojae. The fungus tends to persist in areas that have warm soil temperatures that are quite moist.

Where do Nootka Cypress Trees Grow?

The Nootka cypress tree has a very limited growing range that occurs on the west coast of North America. The range spans from the Kenal Peninsula in Alaska, southward to the Klamath Mountains of northern California.

These trees will grow most robustly on wet sites in mountain ranges and are found very close to the top of the tree line. They grow in USDA hardiness zones 5 through 9. They will only grow in colder microclimates that have cool summers.

What are the Growing Conditions of Nootka Cypress Trees?

This is a close look at a young nootka cypress tree at a garden.

Soil

Nootka cypresses can tolerate many soil types, but they prefer soil that is well-drained. The soil can be light soil or heavy clay, so long as it is moist.

Sun Exposure

Nootka cypresses are sun-loving trees, which is not unusual for evergreen trees. They can tolerate partial shade, though they prefer full sun.

Water

One of the most important growing conditions for the Nootka cypress tree is moisture. They must have completely moist soil at all times, or they will quickly begin to perish. This is why their growing region is so strictly limited to the west coast of North America, where it is almost a rainforest-like climate.

How is Nootka Cypress Trees Used?

This is a close look at a healthy and mature nootka cypress tree.

Wood

If the Nootka cypress tree didn’t grow so slowly, it would be one of the most valuable timbers in the world. It is considered as being one of the finest timbers available.

Nootka cypress wood is hard, durable, with much stability. It has an attractive straight grain and color, and it is completely weather and insect-resistant. It’s also very easily worked.

This wood has been used for flooring, interior finishing, shipbuilding, carpentry, exterior siding, decking, exposed beams, cabinetry, and millwork.

Not to mention it is also a very popular choice for building saunas!

Traditionally, Nootka cypress wood has been used to create paddles, dishes, bows, and face masks as well.

It also is one of the absolute best choices for firewood. Even if a tree died 100 years ago, the wood can still be used as firewood. The heartwood is very hard and durable, making so that it has a high heat capacity and burns for a very long time.

Ornamental

The Nootka cypress is also a very popular landscaping tree. It has such an attractive and unusual shape and would make for a wonderful plant for urban streetside plantings. These trees are also semi tolerant to urban pollution, and they can perform quite well in gardens and parks, though they should not be planted as street trees.

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