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Cupressus sempervirens l.

Italian Cypress

Modern name

Cupressus sempervirens L.

A tree 80 to 150 ft high and 4 to 10 ft in girth of trunk in the Mediterranean region, its branching either horizontal or fastigiate, the bark thin; final subdivision of branchlets terete or squarish, 130 to 120 in. wide. Leaves scale-like, dark green, arranged in four rows, closely pressed to the twig or axis, overlapping each other at their bases, the exposed part diamond-shaped, blunt at the apex. Cones globose to oblong, 34 to 114 in. long; scales eight to fourteen, usually rising to a point in the middle, but sometimes flat or slightly hollowed, with a thin boss in the centre. Seeds not warted.

var. sempervirens. – This is the typical variety, of fastigiate habit, usually known as var. stricta Ait., or as “C. pyramidalis”. It is not known in the genuinely wild state but is widely distributed in the Mediterranean region and farther east as a cultivated and semi-naturalised tree. It is very variable and linked by intermediates to var. horizontalis. The very narrowly fastigiate forms are selections perpetuated by cuttings.

var. horizontalis (Mill.) Gord. C. horizontalis Mill. – Branches more or less horizontal. This is the state in which C. sempervirens is found as a wild tree in the Aegean and the Neat East.

C. sempervirens is the ‘cypress’ of the ancients; cultivated in England for at least four centuries. It lives out-of-doors at Kew, but does not thrive there like C. macrocarpa, needing a warmer climate. This tenderness is more especially marked in young trees. There are fine examples scattered over the south and west parts of our islands. Wherever planted it likes shelter, and should be put out young. The erect-growing form is the most popular in this country, and is the tree whose tall, dark, columnar shape is so characteristic a feature of Italian gardens and cemeteries. It lives to be several hundreds of years old in S. Europe. In the Boboli Gardens, familiar to visitors to Florence, an avenue of cypresses is 300 years old, yet shows no evidence of decline. At Somma, in Lombardy, there grew what was, perhaps, the most famous tree in Europe. It was of the horizontal-branched kind and grew close to the Simplon road, which Napoleon is said to have diverted in order to save it. This tree, which was reputed to have been planted before the birth of Christ, was blown down in a storm on 2nd September 1944.

The wood of the Italian cypress is remarkably durable, and was much employed for making large chests for clothing, etc., in the Middle Ages, its odour, agreeable to human beings, keeping away moths. According to Loudon, the doors of St Peter’s at Rome, made of this wood, stood for over 1,100 years, and were found to be perfectly sound on removal.

Among the cypresses, C. sempervirens is most closely allied to C. macrocarpa, but may usually be distinguished by the finer, more delicate spray and smaller leaves, also by the frequently shallow, pyramidal apex of the scales, and the smooth, not warted, seeds.

The largest specimens of C. sempervirens in the British Isles are around 55 to 70 ft in height. These are found at: Killerton, Devon; Penrhyn Castle, Caer.; Blackmoor, Hants; Nymans, Sussex; Nettlecombe, Somerset; Montacute House, Somerset; Mamhead, Devon; Blenheim Palace, Oxon.; Edinburgh Botanic Garden; Fota, Co. Cork, Eire. These are of rather open habit, but narrow spire­like specimens grow at Bodvean, Caer., and at Powerscourt in Eire. (All measurements 1955-66.)

From the Supplement (Vol. V)

specimens: Blackmoor, Hants, pl. 1869, 72 × 312 ft (1982); Nymans, Sussex, 72 × 312 ft (1977); Blenheim Palace, Oxon., 68 × 8 ft (1978); Killerton, Devon, 70 × 612 ft (1980); Holker, Cumb., 58 × 414 ft (1983); Singleton Abbey, W. Glam., 69 × 534 ft and 75 × 712 ft at 3 ft (1982); Monreith, Wigtowns., 1878 seed, 40 × 414 ft (1979); Headfort, Co. Meath, Eire, pl. 1918, 72 × 334 ft (1980).

All the above are of the typical, columnar form, and it is evident from their wide dispersal that the Italian cypress is much hardier than generally supposed.

Raised from seed, C. sempervirens is very variable, as is clear from plantings in the Aegean, where a single line planted for shelter or to mark a boundary may contain a diversity of forms, from narrowly conic to broad-crowned, with intermediates in which the habit is columnar but with short, horizontal branches. There is, incidentally, no doubt that the typical C. sempervirens of Linnaeus is the cultivated fastigiate form. He distinguished the wild form as C. sempervirens var. β, founded on Tournefort’s phrase-name ‘Cupressus ramos extra se spargens’.

† cv. ‘Swane’s Golden’. – With the habit of the Italian cypress, but the foliage golden yellow. Of seedling origin, raised in Australia.

† var. dupreziana (A. Camus) Silba C. dupreziana A. Camus – This interesting cypress, now much reduced in numbers, occurs in south-eastern Algeria on the Tassili n’Ajjer at about 6,000 ft. Even in comparatively recent times the Saharan region received a higher rainfall than now, and C. sempervirens could then have ranged far south of the Mediterranean. A dead but well-preserved cypress has in fact been reported from the Ahaggar (Hoggar) mountains, still farther south, on the Northern Tropic.

The Tassili cypress differs from typical C. sempervirens in the following characters: branchlets arranged in flattened sprays; glands of leaves excreting resin, at least on young cultivated trees; cones smaller, with flattened seeds. For climatic reasons it no longer reproduces itself in the wild, but bears fertile seed by which it has been introduced to cultivation.

Perhaps nearer to the Tassili cypress than to typical C. sempervirens is: var. atlantica (Gaussen) Silba, described, as a species, in 1950 from the Atlas mountains of Morocco. For the differences between them see Silba, op. cit. (1983), p. 354.



Other species in the genus