Pecky Cypress – An American Favorite

Flush-mounted pecky cypress beam accents a salt water fish aquarium and brick wall.

Sometimes Fungi Are Good!

Bald cypress is a deciduous conifer in the family Cupressaceae that grows on saturated and seasonally inundated soils in the lowlands of the Southeastern and Gulf Coastal Plains of the United States.   Like most tree species it has several common names (baldcypress, bald-cypress, cypress, southern-cypress, white cypress, tidewater red-cypress, sinker cypress, Gulf-cypress, red-cypress, or swamp cypress) but only one scientific (Latin) name:  Taxodium distichum.

Cypress wood is without an odor and closely resembles that of other Cupressus species.  It has long been valued for its natural decay resistance.  However, the cypress that is harvested today does not have the same heartwood decay resistance of cypress of the early 1900s.  This fact has been well documented but the reasons for this difference are less clear.  I personally have seen ax cut cypress logs recovered from lakes and rivers.  The lumber cut from these logs is absolutely beautiful.  Bald cypress was designated the official state tree of Louisiana in 1963. Some consider it to be a symbol of the southern swamps of the United States and it is often featured in many swamp paintings and pictures along with Spanish moss.  The early settlers used cypress to produce shakes and shingles for their houses.

Cypress has long been a favorite wood species for furniture and other value-added uses.  It has a unique grain pattern that often includes missing and false rings due to local environmental conditions (i.e., flooding).  A missing ring occurs when no ring is produced in a year and a false ring occurs when multiple rings are produced in one year.  So, be careful when trying to age a cypress log based on visual ring count.  The rings need to be closely examined to distinguish true and false rings.

My favorite feature of cypress is not the false rings but “peck.”  This is a very rare condition and has a high demand and limited supply.  Therefore, if you do find it, be prepared to pay dearly.  I did a quick internet search and found 1×8 tongue and grove pecky cypress selling for $7.50 per linear foot.  I recall years ago talking to a man that recovered “sinker cypress” from rivers, bayous, and swamps in south Louisiana.  This wood was prized for its beautiful color and grain and had little to no peck.  He was cutting the logs into 4/4 (1 in.) boards and selling it for $10 per board ft (green) to contractors in Houston, TX.   He had open orders to provide as much as he could supply!

Peck is actually a condition caused by a fungal attack that leaves long, narrow burrows or cavities in the wood. The fungus attacks mostly older cypress trees from the tree canopy down to the roots. Once the tree is harvested, the fungal attack stops, leaving the beautiful, unique pecky patterns.  Many fungi attack T. distichum trees. The main fungi is Stereum taxodii which attacks the heartwood of living trees.  A few other fungi species and insects will attack cypress heartwood and sapwood but are not responsible for peck.  Perhaps the biggest threat to pecky cypress is nutria which eat young cypress seedlings so they never have a chance to become a merchantable tree – with or without peck.  

Todd Shupe is the President of DrToddShupe.com and is a well recognized expert on wood-based housing and wood science.  Shupe worked as a  professor and lab director at LSU for 18 years and Quality Manager for Eco Environmental (Louisville, KY) for 2 years. He is active in several ministries including his Christian blog ToddShupe.com. Todd is the Secretary of the Baton Rouge District of United Methodist Men, Database Coordinator for Gulf South Men, and volunteer for the Walk to Emmaus, Grace Camp, Iron Sharpens Iron, Open Air Ministries, HOPE Ministries food pantry. Todd is currently preparing to be a Men’s Ministry Specialist through the General Commission of United Methodist Men.

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