A Local Legend

The Monterey Cypress is one of the most beautiful and desired trees on the planet, and it grew up right in our backyard.

by Neil Khosla

The Monterey Cypress looks like it’s fresh out of a Dr. Seuss book. It has a lopsided profile and a windswept mat of evergreen leaves resting atop a twisted trunk. With a closer look, the cypress blooms into a beautiful coniferous giant. Its branches radiate in all directions, forming a broad umbrella that protects everything below.

Its native range is confined to the Monterey Bay Area. This native habitat is where it grows naturally, without help from people.

The only natural Monterey Cypress forests are in Point Lobos State Reserve and in the Del Monte Forest. But because of its beauty and ability to protect homes and crops from intense winds, the Monterey Cypress is planted around the world. Individual cypress trees can be found scattered all over the San Francisco Bay Area. It even thrives in Europe, Africa, and Australia.

The Monterey Cypress (or for aspiring taxonomists: Hesperocyparis macrocarp) belongs to a large family of trees called Cupressaceae. This family has a lot of well-known members, including the Coast Redwood, Giant Sequoia, and Italian Cypress.

Like their relatives, Monterey Cypresses reach extreme heights, widths, and ages. With heights reaching 130 feet, and trunks over six feet wide, these conifers are giant beacons along California’s coast. Their tremendous presence is quite lasting. The oldest living Monterey Cypresses are over 250 years old, and stand alongside the sea on 17-mile drive.

Though the California coast is a hotspot for plant diversity, it is impossible for most plants to survive the salty conditions near the sea. When seabreezes spray over the shores, salt sucks all of the water out of the plants. For this reason, there are very few large plants standing along the sandy cliffs of Highway 1 – except for the Monterey Cypress.

This tree is a part of an elite group of salt-tolerant plants called halophytes. A halophyte (or “salt-plant”) finds ways to divert salt away from sensitive areas. To avoid shriveling up, halophytes do not allow salt to reach their leaves. Instead, they stop it at the root of the problem: the roots. When salt is excluded from the roots of the tree, it is unable to travel up to the moist leaves. Halophytes are not common plants, and constitute only 2% of all known plant species.

A Pressing Issue

But the Monterey Cypress does not have a clever solution for avoiding dehydration by drought. California’s drought is drying up more than just reservoirs. Coastal fog is rapidly disappearing into thin air. This spells disaster for the native Monterey Cypresses.

Fog is basically a floating mass of extremely tiny water particles. It sifts through coastal flora, leaving behind droplets of water that plants use to stay hydrated. In drought conditions, fog levels drop drastically. This is detrimental for coastal plants like redwoods and cypresses that depend on the fog. As the fog rolls out of the bay, the cypress trees dry up – and dry trees are fire magnets.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the Monterey Cypress as “threatened”. Because of all the tourist and camping activity along the coast, the threat of fire in local forests is extremely high. Small campfires can grow into rampant blazes that decimate entire forests. Since there are only two remaining native forests of Monterey Cypresses, one big fire could push the species to the brink of extinction.

Not So Fun(gi)

Dehydration pales in comparison to the tree’s medical history. The Monterey Cypress was discovered to be patient zero for a disease that attacks many species of cypress trees around the world. This affliction is called cypress canker disease, and is caused by a lethal fungus called Seiridium.

Cypress canker disease is not a threat to native Monterey Cypress trees. It only affects cypress trees outside of the Monterey Bay. The disease is believed to have begun in the 1920’s, when Monterey natives were first transplanted in California’s Central Valley and in Europe.

Away from their natural home, the trees lost some of their defense mechanisms and became vulnerable to attack. Then, the Seiridium fungus latched on and infected the cypress. The poisonous fungus girdles, (or constricts) the tree’s branches, preventing the tree from transporting essential nutrients to its leaves and trunk. Then, the diseased cypress tree suffocates to death.

Although this disease started with our local cypress, it has since jumped to several other species worldwide. Treacherous Seiridium spores detach from infected trees, fly through the air, and latch onto other nearby cypresses. Treatment for the cypress canker disease is limited and often not very fruitful, making this disease that much more deadly.

Local Monterey Cypresses

Despite the diseases abroad, local Monterey Cypress forests are thriving. In fact, they’re bursting at the seams with the iconic Monterey Bay trees. The beautiful evergreen conifers are the center of many artists’ attention, especially one famous tree in particular.

Check out the only natural Monterey Cypress forests on the planet. Remember: they are a threatened species and are extremely rare in the wild, so hold back on the campfires when near these unique cypresses:

Point Lobos State Reserve
Del Monte Forest

Make like a cypress tree and get out there!