The species name for these tall sentinels is Cupressus sempervirens, and comes from the Latin for ‘evergreen’. They are widely seen growing in Portugal, and are sometimes known as Italian or Tuscan Cypress as they can be seen all over Italy, where the growing conditions are similar – full sun with sandy or clay soil – conditions especially suitable when the tree is young. They are often known as the pencil pine - or churchyard cypress, as they are often found standing on guard around cemeteries, and it is said they were planted to keep demons at a safe distance and to ensure safe passage towards the afterlife.
The leaves are fragrant, and were often planted around homes and churches, not only for their aesthetic value but to enrich the surrounding air with ‘a breath of freshness’. They are also associated with death in numerous cultures as they cannot survive injuries resulting from cutting large pieces from them, and are therefore propagated by tissue culture rather than cuttings, so don’t try hacking bits off and expecting branches to grow yourself!
Seeds can be collected from the cones in the autumn, but this is a complex task – not impossible, but not a job for the novice gardener.
These days, they are mainly cultivated to provide protection against wind, to screen unsightly buildings or give some sort of privacy, and can reach a height of up to 115 feet, with the top pointed crown growing only 3-6 feet in width. Being flexible, they are known in New Mexico as the ‘drama tree’, as it bends under the slightest of breezes.
Mediterranean cypress has applications in numerous industries - they contain essential oils which prevent tree decomposition, and for this reason, they are often used in the manufacture of coffins and sarcophagi, as well as furniture. The small scale-like leaves are fragrant, and are also used in the cosmetic industry for the production of shampoos with anti-seborrheic and anti-dandruff effects and for the production of – believe it or not - anti-ageing creams. Fragrant essential oils are used in the perfume industry, with the Etruscans believing that the Mediterranean cypress had supernatural powers due to its strong aroma.
The tree produces small oblong cones, both male and female on the same tree, which can reach up to 1” in length, and are initially green before turning brown. They pollinate profusely for six or seven months of the year, which could possibly cause discomfort to allergy sufferers.
The tree is susceptible to bark cankers induced by two types of fungus and decreased the number of trees in alarming numbers in certain parts of the world, where control by sanitation is difficult and has resulted in the large scale felling of infected trees.
Grow your own
You can grow these yourself in a pot before transferring them into the ground, in well-drained reasonably fertile soil, but avoid heavy soils, especially in winter, where they might get waterlogged. The rootball should be near the surface or partly uncovered by the surrounding soil. Use a short stake angled at 45° with a tree tie to secure it. Now is a good time for planting up until the spring, and keep it watered during dry spells for the first one or two growing seasons.
Regular trimming is essential to maintain the slender upright shape, starting from when the tree is very young. During May to September, use shears to clip the sides to produce neat, dense growth on an evenly shaped tree, being careful not to cut new shoots back whilst avoiding cutting into older wood. If you decide to ‘top’ the tree you risk removing growth cells, and it will not grow any taller. If pruning multiple trees, clean the blades of the shears between doing each one, with a weak (5%) solution of bleach in water, to avoid the risk of disease transmission.
The oldest known tree is in Iran and is supposed to be around 4,000 years old. If you are planning a row of several, be aware that they take up to 50 years to reach their optimum height, so it’s possible you might not see them grow to their full potential in your lifetime!