By Mara Trushell
Cupressus arizonica (Arizona cypress) is the only native species of cypress in the United States and is an indicator of past environmental conditions. This relatively fast-growing, large tree is a common addition to urban landscapes (as wind breaks, erosion control, and landscape ornamentals) and can be spotted throughout the Southwest. Native populations, however, are sparse within Arizona. For example, there is a beautiful and dense population on the south side of Arizona 260 as you travel through the canyons between Payson and Pine.
Stemming from the interior of Mexico, native Cupressus arizonica populations are scattered through the sky islands of southern Arizona and continue throughout the Prescott, Tonto, and Coconino National forests. These populations are tucked in drainages and sheltered mountain slopes from 3,000-7,500 feet with varying growth-forms influenced by the immediate environment.
Cupressus arizonica has been documented to grow anywhere from 15 to 90 feet tall. Their form begins as conical but diverges to broad and variable with age. Fragrant (when crushed), scale-like needles that are gray to blue-green spread across dense branches. This monecious species (males and female reproductive parts occur on separate individuals) have been recorded with male and/or female cone development from November to March. The female cones are relatively large (10-25 mm) and resin-covered, each consisting of four to eight scales that hold and protect seeds until dispersed. Male cones are inconspicuous prior to maturity, when yellow pollen is released for fertilization. C. arizonica has a red-brown-gray trunk that, with age, develops peeling bark and becomes furrowed.
Next time you find yourself navigating interior chaparral slopes, exploring semidesert grassland drainages, or enjoying a rich riparian system, keep an eye out for Cypressus arizonica, a truly majestic species, whether a single massive tree or a smaller charismatic growth within its native environment.
Mara Trushell is a local natural science enthusiast and board member of The Arizona Native Plant Society.