One day in the early 1990s, when my son was not much past ten, we were walking down a Madison Park sidewalk and he spotted a tall, columnar evergreen tree, pointed to it and said, “Look Dad, the Via Appia.” He had identified an Italian or Mediterranean Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), something of a rarity for Seattle in those days. These soaring, almost pencil thin and rigid trees are two of the most commonly seen along the fabled Appian Way connecting ancient Rome to the Southeastern part of the boot. Wow! He’d been in Italy with his mother and me the summer before. Still, his spot-on association was startling. When travel, liberal education, and what I like to think is a genetic love of plants, combine and pop out of one’s child, a parent’s chest puffs up like a pigeon’s, perched atop a statue of Caesar. Then again, these trees are like none other.
In America we see Italian Cypress mostly in California and Arizona, but in the 1970s a few intrepid gardeners planted them in Seattle. Those who did it right, have left us with what have become obelisks of dark green and blue-green that punctuate the skyline of urban gardens without consuming much space or demanding much of the gardener.
While I’ve seen old trees in Southern Europe that were 60 feet tall, I’ve never seen a Northwest transplant in excess of about 20 feet All the same, who knows what time and the shift toward hotter, drier summers will produce?
If you’re looking for a plant to put some punch in your garden, this is a good candidate, given the right location and soil. Two things that Italian Cypress must have to get through our moist, often dark winters are a spot in full sun and perfect drainage. With too little light and too much water, the branches get leggy, flop out and the tree loses the tight density of its needled branches that make it so distinctive. Keep plantings low around an Italian Cypress. In line with this tree’s value of what garden designers call “a vertical statement” the Italian Cypress needs to stand alone, or in a cluster of three or so, allowing the soaring form to stop the eye and pull it skyward.
Plants are most often sold in 5-gallon to 15-gallon cans. If you buy one this month, slip the nursery tub into a larger, more decorative container. If you wrap the tree in small lights, or perhaps even metallic ribbon, it will say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays with the best of the Season’s offerings. Get it into the ground early in the new year. When weather heats up and precipitation stops, give it a good soaking once or twice a week for the first two or three years you have it. After that, the plant will be well established and, like most Italians, will be happiest just doing its job, being admired, but not like being fussed over. If an errant branch stretches out and droops down, trim it back to retain the tree’s symmetrical, vertical form.
When Summer comes, set out a table next to your Italian Cypress, throw on a red and white checkered table cloth, uncork a bottle of chianti and enjoy a moment in sunny Italy. Ah. There you’ll sit, hopefully with your own Sophia Loren or Marcello Mastroianni.