the best native conifer for the low desert

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Arizona Cypress
Cupressus arizonica
Cupressaceae

  • Large shrub to tree, 30-40 feet high, 20 foot canopy

  • Inconspicuous flowers followed by persistent globose cones

  • excellent nesting site for birds, habitat for many insects which insectivorous birds consume

  •  moderate WATER (BOTTOM to terrace ZONE)

  • PART SHADE to full sun

  • hardy to -10°F

  • great screen or windbreak

  • One of the only native conifers that perform well in low desert

When one thinks of a cypress tree, the image most often conjured is the Italian cypress (Cupressus sempirvirens) that populates outdated landscapes and graveyards in Tucson. But there is another cypress sometimes found in landscapes of a less macabre nature: the Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica), the only cypress native to the southwest USA.

In our region the Arizona cypress tops out at about 30-40 feet tall, but while the Italian cypress is a slim, erect tree that pierces the skyline with its dull green, extremely conical canopy, the Arizona cypress has a much more spreading canopy, and ranges from blue-green to almost silver in foliage color.

These trees provide excellent nesting habitat for birds. Being evergreen, nesting sites are always hidden and protected. The trees attract a host of various insects like ants that attract insectivorous birds.

While there are many evergreen, coniferous shrubs and trees on the market, this is one of the only native ones that survive well in our region.

Plant in full to part sun and allow about 20 feet for the canopy to develop. Plants require moderate water, especially through the dry spells. While these plants are native, they occur just a little higher in elevation than Tucson. Naturally they occur from 3000 to 8000 feet in elevation in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.

In the high desert and grasslands Arizona cypress makes an excellent windbreak and helps with erosion control. They are planted often around homes in agricultural zones in Arizona.

There are several horticultural selections of this species available. Most are selections regarding foliage color or canopy shape.

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Katherine Gierlach