Q. A European Cypress Tree was given to us when our son passed away three years ago; it is so special. We mulched it with our own leaf compost at the time of planting and again the following year and it did fine; but this winter a large stem turned brown. We don't use any chemicals in the garden or lawn, just compost. We do have ornamental grasses planted close to the tree, which need to be cut back. Will cutting the brown portion off—about a quarter of the tree—save it? And can anything else be done to prevent its decline? The tag said it could be planted outside in Zones 5 through 11. Was this wrong? Please help!"
---Carolyn in Collingswood, NJ
A. I have to be honest here and say that it might not have been the best choice. I tend to take a pretty hard line when people ask about planting something in memory of a loved one because I don't want them to get hurt if and when that plant starts to fail.
Because these plants have such a hugely magnified importance, I generally beg people to instead endow a park bench at an Arboretum or something else that's not as subject to the whims of Nature and lawnmowers. Then, if they insist on a plant, I try and steer them away from drama queens or plants that require a lot of attention…
(Which, come to think of it, are kind of the same thing.)…and towards something really low-care and pretty much bulletproof for their zone and situation.
And I can't make much of a case either way for the hardiness of their "European Cypress", because it's a plant that doesn't seem to technically exist; I could find no record anywhere of a plant with that common name. I'll begin by guessing that it's a true Cypress, and not one of the many non-Cypress plants with Cypress in their common name—like False Cypress and the bald Cypress that grows in American swamp land.
"Bald Cypress" are yew relatives; and 'False Cypress' are actually Cedar trees. True cypress are warm-climate Mediterranean plants. My best guess if Carolyn has a true Cypress is that it's a 'sempervirens' species; the common names are Italian Cypress (which is also a false trail, as this tree doesn't actually grow in Italy, but Italy IS in Europe), Mediterranean Cypress (another 'European' link); and, more directly to our point here, Funeral Cypress.
Funeral Cypress is a tree that's been associated with mourning and protection of the deceased for millennia in Mediterranean Europe and other ancient cultures. But in this country, its most often sold around the holidays as a table-top Christmas tree, like the Norfolk Pine; another misnamed and misunderstood plant. (Norfolk pines aren't pine trees, they come from an island named Norfolk that's near Australia (not Virginia) and they can only survive outdoors in the absolute warmest of climes—Zone 10 and up.)
Now, if it is a Funeral Cypress, their success so far is pretty amazing. Yes, New Jersey's winters were mild those first couple of years the tree was outside—but this class of tree isn't supposed to ever be exposed to temps below 20, and even then, only in a sheltered location. So those overgrown ornamental grasses that are described as crowding it out may have actually kept it alive this past winter by sheltering the tree from the worst of the winter winds.
For now, they should certainly cut off any brown branches; they're not going to green up again, no matter what kind of tree it is. But, again—no matter what type of tree it is, I fear it'll continue to brown out if it doesn't get a lot more sun. And if it IS a true Cypress and it gets moved out into the open, another harsh winter might kill it.
But let's back up a, bit, as we are still unsure exactly what kind of plant is in play here. I'm going to include the scientific names of all the different plants with 'Cypress' in their common names at the end of this article. If Carolyn still has the plant tag, she can check the names against it and make a fairly positive ID. Otherwise, look those plant families up online to try and make a visual ID. If it turns out that the plant is a False Cypress, they're in luck—those Cedar-family members ARE rated for zones 5 thru 10.
But if it is a Mediterranean/Funeral Cypress, my best advice is to move it to a protected area that gets full sun, pound stakes into the ground around it in the fall and wrap burlap around the stakes to try and shield the plant from winter winds. And if it doesn't make it, replace it with something that's going to thrive in New Jersey, like the >Forsythia we talked about last week; or a field of daffodils—the most reliable of the Spring bulbs. They're both signs of renewal and rebirth—and they're both bulletproof.
Or stay with the same basic idea—Cypress as a mourning plant—and replace it with one of the Cypress-type trees that will easily survive a New Jersey winter.
False Cypress (Chamaecyparis species); Some types, like the "Mourning Cypress" (C. fenebris) are warm climate-only trees. (Yes, this is a DIFFERENT 'Funeral Cypress' than the 'Italian' one. "Cypress" in general have a long history associated with funerals and mourning, and this class of plants were felt to be true Cypress family members as recently as the late 19th Century). Some members of false Cypress family, like the Lawson Cypress and the White Cedars do fine in cold winter climes.