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Quick facts

Common names: Lawson cypress, Port Orford cedar

Scientific name: Chamaecyparis lawsoniana

Family: Cupressaceae

Origin: non-native

Lawson cypress is an evergreen, narrowly conical tree that can reach up to 45m high. The trunk often forks. The bark is cracked into vertical plates and the twigs are a dark bluish-grey.

Look out for: the leaf scales, on flattened shoots which are fern-like and have narrow, white markings underneath.

Identified in winter by: the top of the tree which droops over. The crushed foliage gives off a pungent parsley-like scent.

What does Lawson cypress look like?

Lawson cypress close-up

Credit: Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Leaves

Short scale-like leaves are grouped in fours and hide the twigs, forming flat planes. They are closely pressed together, producing flat sprays of foliage. They are green with a whitish tinge underneath. The foliage has a pungent scent, rather like parsley.

Lawson cypress red male catkins

Credit: Niall Benvie / naturepl.com

Flowers

Minute flowers, which look like buds, open at the twig tips in spring. Male flowers are crimson, becoming yellow with pollen, and females are blue.

Lawson cypress cones

Credit: FLPA / Alamy Stock Photo

Fruits

Cones ripen from female flowers, starting green, then turning cream and finally ending brown. They are pea-sized with broad scales.

Not to be confused with:

Leyland cypress (Cupressus x leylandii). Lawson cypress twigs grow in flattened, horizontal sprays. Cones are rarely more than 1cm in diameter and many cultivated varieties have golden or green-blue foliage.

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Where to find Lawson cypress 

Lawson cypress is native to California and was introduced to Britain in 1854. There are now many ornamental cultivars. This evergreen tree is grown widely in parks, gardens and churchyards. It can regenerate from seed, and has naturalised on banks, walls and woodland margins throughout lowland UK. It grows best in moist but not waterlogged soils.

Did you know?

Lawson cypress is named after Scottish nurseryman and plant collector, Charles Lawson (1795–1873), whose father founded the Peter Lawson & Son plant nursery based in Edinburgh.

Value to wildlife

The dense foliage provides shelter for nesting birds, including various finches, when many broadleaved trees are still in bud.

Mythology and symbolism

In its native northern California, the Karuk people (north American Indians) used branches from Lawson cypress to build sweat lodges – low, humped buildings where they took ritual steam baths to purify themselves. They also made the branches into brooms.

Lawson cypress bark close-up

Credit: Anne Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo

Uses of Lawson cypress

The wood, which is strong and light, is highly valued in Japan for coffin and shrine construction. It is also used to make arrow shafts and musical instruments, especially guitars. It is grown widely in the UK as an ornamental tree.

Threats and conservation

Particularly susceptible to Phytophthora root rot which causes branch dieback and wilting foliage.