The Italian or Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) is native to the Eastern Mediterranean region and widely grown in gardens and the wider landscape of many European countries, where its distinctive tall and slender, dark green trees are dotted like living exclamation marks. In the UK, Italian cypress is particularly useful in urban areas or small gardens to add formal style and structure, especially due to its compact height. Although associated with the Mediterranean, Italian cypress is hardy and tolerates frost, though shelter from winds is essential. Once established, Italian cypress is tolerant of drought.
Italian cypress has an unmistakeable outline: tall, slender, pencil-shaped, with tiny dark green scale-like, evergreen leaves. The foliage is strongly aromatic if crushed. It can be a useful screening tree if you want to hide a tall building from view.
The dense evergreen of Italian cypress foliage provides good nesting and roosting opportunities for birds, and winter protection for wildlife generally. Italian cypress is prone to aphids, which provide a useful food source for birds, and beneficial insects such as ladybirds.
The ultimate size of Italian cypress can be over 20m high and up to 2.5m wide in Mediterranean regions, but trees growing in cooler climates such as the UK will be much smaller. What's more, you can restrict growth to your desired size by clipping regularly. Some named varieties are naturally more slender than the species. They make good trees for pots.
How to grow Italian cypress
Use Italian cypress in a formal planting scheme to add height and structure, as a screening tree or to create a focal point in a garden design. Grow in a sheltered sunny spot, in well-drained soil. Plant early in the year – keep watered during dry spells for the first couple of years and trim regularly from an early age to maintain shape.
Growing Italian cypress: jump links
- Planting an Italian cypress
- Pruning an Italian cypress
- Growing an Italian cypress: problem-solving
- Buying an Italian cypress
- Best Italian cypress to grow
Where to grow Italian cypress
Site in full sun where the tree is sheltered from winds. Exposure to cold, dry winds can lead to distortion, scorch or damage to the neat columnar shape of this tree. Because Italian cypress is prone to airborne fungi, avoid planting in high-rainfall areas.
How to plant Italian cypress
Plant Italian cypress in well drained, reasonably fertile soil without additional organic matter or fertilizer. Avoid heavy soils that are prone to waterlogging, especially in winter. Beware of planting too deeply, which can cause the stem to rot – the top of the root ball should be level or slightly above the surrounding soil level. Secure the tree with a short stake, angled at 45°, and a tree tie. Ideally plant in late winter to spring and keep watered during dry spells for the first 1-2 growing seasons.
How to prune Italian cypress
Regular trimming is essential to maintain the slender upright shape, starting from when the tree is very young. During May to September, use shears to clip the sides to produce neat, dense growth on an evenly shaped tree, whilst avoiding cutting into older wood. If pruning multiple trees, clean the blades of the shears between doing each one, with a weak (5%) solution of bleach in water, to avoid risk of disease transmission.
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Once the tree has reached the desired height, cut the top, making a slanting cut which is more in keeping with the trees’ shape than a horizontal one.
Correct siting and regular pruning will avert potential problems such as yellowing and dead plants due to waterlogging, and misshapen growth due to wind.
Aphids often occur on Italian cypress and may be followed by black sooty mould that thrives on the sticky honeydew that they secrete. They usually do little or no harm to the tree and control isn’t necessary – encouraging wildlife and beneficial insects, which will feed on the aphids, is the best method of control.
Advice on buying Italian cypress
- Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) is widely available to buy as pot grown plants all year round from nurseries, garden centres, or online
- An extensive range of sizes on offer range from small young trees around 45-60cm high, up to mature ready-grown specimens up to several metres in height. Buying a good-sized plant can be worth doing, if the budget permits, as Italian cypress may be slow to get growing initially
Where to buy Italian cypress
Italian cypress trees to grow
Cupressus sempervirens ‘Totem Pole’ – extremely thin, columnar habit.