Bald Cypress


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From the cliffs of San Diego to the Gulf Coast, cypress trees can be found throughout the United States. But how did this bald cypress, or Taxodium distichum, end up in a bonsai museum? 

The late Vaughn Banting, a former National Bonsai Foundation board member, a former director of the American Bonsai Society and a former director and vice president of Bonsai Clubs International, donated the tree to the Museum in 2000. 

Banting was no stranger to plant care and garden design. His history with trees dates back to his childhood when he worked on bonsai at his family's plant nursery in New Orleans. A veteran of the Vietnam War, he studied horticulture and landscape architecture at Louisiana State University. After returning home he started a horticultural service company and founded the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society. 

Banting’s cypress tree began as nursery stock, which is a plant that has been cultivated from a seedling or cutting and grown in a container, according to Museum curator Michael James. The stock is then planted into the landscape to grow into a full-sized tree or shrub. This particular cypress was instead destined to become a bonsai and has been in training in a pot since 1972. 

The cypress in 1976 in its first form, the formal upright.

The cypress in 1976 in its first form, the formal upright.

The bald cypress, a deciduous conifer native to the Southeast United States, is often found in swamps where its roots can be fully submerged in water. One would be hard-pressed to find this particular species of cypress growing in Japan or China, because the tree would have to travel to those countries by boat or plane, James said. 

When Vaughn Banting first began training this tree, he aimed for a traditional Japanese formal-upright formation, which is the natural growth habit of young bald cypresses. But he later realized that old bald cypresses are different.

Museum curators and volunteers train the cypress in a flat-top configuration – the same style the tree sported when Banting first gifted the tree to the Museum. According to James, Banting observed the bald cypress’ unique growth habits as they matured at his parent’s nursery, which led him to create the flat-top style. 

Related Reading – Know Your Styles: A Guide to Bonsai Configurations

Banting realized that the flat-top style’s success relies on the positioning and thinning of the upper branches.

“As the trees become old and mature, they lose the triangular silhouette with a sharp apex and wide lower branch spread,” James said. “The lower branches break off over time, and that triangular silhouette of the formal upright style inverts itself. Upper branches then form a broad flat canopy with multiple apices and lower branches hold their foliage close to the trunk.” 

After nearly fifty years of training and three different training stages, Banting’s bald cypress is on display in the Museum’s North American pavilion. The flat-top configuration has become very popular, and the Museum is looking forward to the next innovative bonsai design to come our way.