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GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: Why I Love Tecate Cypress

By Susan Krzywicki.

Editor's Note: The Tecate cypress is an endangered species, and it's one of the many plants that the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is working to conserve. The Institute's work is the focus of April's Monthly Meeting presentation.

Thorne's hairstreak butterfly perched on Tecate cypress. Photo credit: Michael W. Klein Sr., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tecate cypress (Hesperocyparis forbesii; Cupressus forbesii) is such a beauty. I love it for its scent, its shape, its color, and its super-niche habitat value. This multi-trunked evergreen tree has a bushy growth form—like a fat Italian cypress. On Mexican Federal Highway 3, heading south from Tecate, you may actually spot occasional groves of this cypress—they stand out because of their bright green color, even in the dry summer period. The scent—resin and pine—is heavenly. The reddish bark is thin and peels away in sweet curls, and it is that perfect shade of medium green that creates a pleasing effect in a garden. Tecate cypress can grow to twenty or thirty feet tall and up to seven feet across, and they can be lined up for a non-sheared screening hedge.

Tecate Cypress Habitat

Tecate cypress bark peels to reveal a new smooth, bright red layer. Photo credit: J. Malone.

Tecate cypress is found in a very restricted geography from the Otay mountains down into Tecate, Mexico. It is found in scrub and brushlands, along canyons and in valleys. It thrives on steep slopes. Tecate cypress is considered rare throughout its range. The outer bark peels annually to reveal a new smooth, bright red layer. It is generally not used for anything other than decorative woodworking, since there is usually no main trunk, despite its height. Companion plants in the wild may include Otay Mountain lilac (Ceanothus otayensis), Otay manzanita (Arctostaphylos otayensis), southern mountain misery (Chamaebatia australis), Munz's sage (Salvia munzii), and even the Ocellated Humboldt lily (Lilium humboldtii ssp. ocellatum)—which, despite its name, has a range that includes San Diego County and northern Baja California. It provides cover for the area's few remaining mountain lions, as well as golden eagles and other small animals. The coast horned lizard considers it home.

Thorne’s Hairstreak

While ecologists managed to gain a designation for federal wilderness for the entire range of the Thorne's hairstreak butterfly, the Center for Biological Diversity notes its "unique and imperiled" existence in the face of repeatedly rejected petitions to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the butterfly as endangered. One of the threats to the Thorne's hairstreak lies in the fact that it lays its eggs exclusively on the Tecate cypress. This is a happy arrangement—as long as the Tecate cypress is around.

You may remember that difficult year: 2003…the Mine fire burnt over 45,000 acres of the Otay Mountains. About 68 percent of Thorne's hairstreak habitat was lost in that one event. The Thorne’s hairstreak may not be too showy, but if the Tecate cypress goes extinct, the Thorne’s hairstreak would follow.

In Your Garden (And in Your Beverage)

Tecate cypress has a strong role to play in any local garden. Low water needs is just the beginning. (In fact, too much water will make the tip floppy.) The shape is architectural and it can be kept in a pot for many years to create a strong focal point. It is a dramatic exclamation mark for areas where you need an upright shape and volume. It creates a cool space in summer, and a steady green spot throughout the year. And, of course, at the holidays, I hang bright, oversized balls on one of mine for a festive look. I’ve even clipped small sections and steeped them in vodka for an infused cocktail base.

Susan Krzywicki is a native plant landscape designer in San Diego. She has been the first Horticulture Program Director for the California Native Plant Society, as well as chair of the San Diego Surfrider Foundation Ocean Friendly Gardens Committee and is on the board of San Diego Canyonlands.

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