Signature cypress knees in the shallow waters surrounding Newnans Lake.(Monica Humphries/WUFT News)

For the Love of Cypress

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Cypress forests are some of the most iconic landscapes in natural Florida, with thick-bottomed trees soaring skyward to a gorgeous green canopy that turns deep red as the seasons change.

The red matches the bare knuckles of the knees that distinctively surround cypress trees. It’s the same red found in mulch decorating parking lots outside local shopping centers.

This red cypress mulch fills flowerbeds throughout neighborhoods. It lines coffee shops, pharmacies and restaurants.

People think this red beautifies a front lawn or parking lot. But the real beauty of cypress is found in the forest.

These whimsical trees are iconic to the Southeast. But as they are cut down and ground up for mulch, many scientists and tree-lovers worry about a crucial ecosystem being lost to landscaping tastes.

Cypress trees are a critical habitat for migratory birds and native wildlife. They also have a direct impact on humans.

(Monica Humphries/WUFT News)
A stand of cypress on Newnans Lake east of Gainesville. Biologists such as Jack Putz at the University of Florida say the state’s iconic cypress trees, even the smallest, are too ecologically valuable to harvest for yard mulch. (Monica Humphries/WUFT News)

When cypress surround coastlines, they protect these areas from the effects of storms. Cypress forests act as buffers, weakening a hurricane or other surge. That protection is crucial as the Southeast experiences stronger storms in an age of climate change, said Jack Putz, a biology professor at the University of Florida. Yet, the forests are disappearing as Southeastern hurricanes are reappearing. Cypress mulch is one of the culprits.

In Florida, 129,000 tons of cypress mulch are produced a year. Immature cypress trees are targeted for mulching to avoid felling the largest trees, but that can have lifelong impacts on an ecosystem, Putz said.

“This kind of harvesting is an ecosystem transformation,” he said. “A few cypress may sprout, but you’re changing the hydrology of the system, you’re changing the topography of the system, and you’re converting a cypress forest into a marsh or a mixed ecosystem, which certainly not what it started with.”

Yet each day, more trees are felled and ground up and mulch is packed in trucks, stacked in aisles and sold at cash registers. Putz said many people simply don’t make the connection between the product and the stately tree. For about $3 a bag, it’s not surprising that homeowners keep using it.

Part of the problem is that consumers have misperceptions about cypress mulch and its suitability, said Hollie Dutcher, an environmental science senior at UF who did a research project on mulch. Originally, cypress mulch was a byproduct that came from the century-old trees. When the trees were turned into furniture and lumber, unused portions were sold as mulch. This mulch was mature and had different characteristics than the young trees harvested for mulch today. The original mulch earned a reputation for lasting a long time and not attracting insects. But research shows that the cypress mulch on the market today is not so resilient.

Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe’s are the three main sellers of cypress mulch.

(Monica Humphries/WUFT News)
Many varieties of mulch for sale at Lowe’s in west Gainesville. To avoid the negative impacts of cypress mulch, consumers can buy more sustainable varieties such as melaleuca mulch, or pick up free mulch made of yard waste from local government programs. Even better, says Catherine Bowman, president of the Florida Native Plant Society, is no mulch at all. Native plants re-seed and grow more vigorously without it, she says. (Monica Humphries/WUFT News)

Each company has sustainability initiatives, such as Home Depot’s “Ethical Sourcing” policy that ensures its wood is not sourced from endangered rainforests. Instead, Home Depot sources products from “plentiful North American forests,” according to its website. But the sale of cypress mulch runs counter to the goals of sustainable forestry, Putz said.

While Wal-Mart announced it would stop selling cypress mulch from Louisiana swamps a decade ago, cypress-lovers and scientists in other parts of the southeast have not been able to raise similar attention in Florida and neighboring states. Demonstrations and thousands of postcards sent to the big-box stores have not made a difference, Putz said. Likewise, the three companies didn’t return numerous emails or calls for this story.

However, homeowners and business owners who want to landscape more sustainably have plenty of alternatives – and they’re cheaper than a trip to Lowe’s.

Alachua County residents can pick up mulch through the Leveda Brown Environmental Park & Transfer Station. The county chips more than 1,000 tons of tree debris and pallets into mulch each year and offers it to Alachua County residents for free.

Gainesville Regional Utilities also offers free wood chips, byproducts of routine trimming around powerlines.  Residents who fill out a woodchip recycling application can have an entire load delivered right to the front yard.

Another alternative is melaleuca mulch.

Melaleuca is an invasive tree introduced from Australia that’s taken over many wetland ecosystems across Florida.

“There’s a much better tree for mulching and that’s the melaleuca tree,” said Mark Brown, a UF professor in environmental engineering sciences.

The melaleuca tree is generally seen as a harmful species across Florida, and foresting these trees for mulch encourages action, Brown said.

“It’s exotic and invasive, and we need to get rid of it,” Putz said.

Beyond melaleuca, pine tree bark, pine needles, eucalyptus and yard waste from homes are all viable options, Putz said.

A bag of pine bark is just a few pennies more than a bag of cypress mulch. And all options are relatively similar in price, Putz said.

But the best option isn’t in a store – it’s using no mulch at all, said Catherine Bowman, president of the Florida Native Plant Society.

FNPS encourages Floridians to plant and grow native plants. “Many are surprised to learn that you don’t want mulch,” she said. “You want the plants to re-seed and grow.”

The FNPS is working to inform the public that mulch isn’t necessary, and that cypress mulch is particularly unsuitable.

Cypress mulch is not preferred when FNPS hands out landscape awards, and the unsustainable practice is discussed during events and meetings.

“With the native plants, we’re trying to add back plants that you don’t have to force to grow and that don’t need mulch,” Bowman said.

These native species are part of what makes Florida’s nature so unusual and so beautiful – along with iconic cypress.

The birds that fill the sky and Florida’s aquatic life simply wouldn’t flourish without these 500-year-old trees.

About Monica Humphries

Monica Humphries is a reporter for WUFT News and can be reached at 407-256-6899 or monicamh@ufl.edu.

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