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Lawson Cypress, a Reassessment - by Ben Gaia, www.dialatree.co.nz


Long Term History

We need to think in longer rotations than 30 years to improve the quality and sustainability of our forest estate (timber tree supply) as a country. There are other reasons than just the fine wood, to grow Lawson Cypress or Port Orford Cedar. A native of southern Oregon. It has grown for centuries here in the South Island, and colder parts of the North. They were once popular as a hedge in the 1800s probably because they looked smart like Italian cypresses but were less fussy in the rough climates of both Northern Europe and the Southern Colonies. Old monster garden trees survive in the outback, marking the sites of long disappeared farmhouses, cemeteries. and miner's cottages. Forest Service trial plantings were put in around Westland in the 1930s along with gums, blackwoods, cryptomerias, different pines and poplars. The surviving stands were largely milled, now some have self sown in the wet clay to produce a second generation regrowth of straight Lawson stems which continue to grow well on disturbed ground, amongst kamahi, young rimu, and even replanted pines. These wind-whipped survivors had a rotation of sixty years, but that was without any careful management, feeding or tending. A probable milling age of 45 years would be enough with pruning, thinning and feeding. They blend in with the native forest here on the Coast, the branches weeping down a bit like rimus. Lawson could be used in a mixed carbon forest area where the native forest regenerates and includes some exotic production species. They have certainly proved themselves locally in a mixed native forest situation..

Reefton Domain trees probably from 1870 so 154 years old, into their second century of happy growth.

These are great long term trees for New Zealand. Reefton Domain and many old farm homesteads around rural New Zealand, boast gigantic old Lawson trees at least 100 years old surviving and thriving. Every now and again a local wise sawmiller will spot one being felled and suddenly everyone has nice smelling beams and lintels in their new-builds. "In this space", that is, long term timber trees, there's oaks and redwoods too, and Cryptomerias, all long lived and trying to prove themselves. Chestnut and Walnut would have to be on this list too. But failed candidates in my book include Blackwoods (too weedy, you never get rid of them), and Red Cedars, thrashed by bugs and wind, and a poor imitation of the Lawson. Old Lombardy Poplars get huge but are usually punky, split, and not good for milling; same with giant willows. By contrast rural dwellers often mill old Lawson cypress trees successfully and produce great timber.

Quality Lawson timber is a known quantity.

As my own trees reach harvest or have to be thinned, I can compare all these trees for their timber from a sawmiller and wood worker's perspective. Lawson wood, like macrocarpa wood and Lusitanica, is a pale "hard softwood". Easy to cut, can be well featured, it is strong, bulding timber, needing treatment only if the sapwood is exposed to weather: the heart being solid. A few layers of oil will keep Lawson cypress safe out in the wilds. Linseed oil and weather turn it black which some people like for Scandinavian cladding. Finely milled it is ideal for clothes chests and drawers with its natural insect-repellent scent and stable strength. Some of the West Coast harvested Lawson timber went off to serve as cross-bars on telephone poles in Taiwan, a valuable export niche and further proof of its hardy wood.

The older your log the more heartwood it gets in it. Big old trees in the USA reach 400 years old and the fallen heartwood stays intact on the ground for years. A great wood for homesteading uses, or bush-building, and well known enough to be easily sold as cut boards, used to build your own house, or traded with friends for building materials or labour.

Cypress biofuel advantage over cedar, redwood.

As firewood, Lawson has a lovely incense scent, bright and cheerful. Splitting well with the axe, despite being often called a "cedar", it burns like a cypress, which is good. Because cedar and redwood are great at being fire resistant, those species are not so good for home fuel production as Lawson and the well-loved macrocarpa. You need some of your plantation to have a fuelwood element. Alder, cypress, and hardwoods like oak and eucalyptus are awesome for firewood from offcuts or bendy trees. Thinned Lawsons, and all the trimmed branches make great firewood. It dries fast like pine and burns hot like Macrocarpa. Properly dried, cypress woods are higher temperature producing than both pine and willow.

Nursery Trees at Dialatree

Sturdy When Young

Hard to find in nurseries, it is considered old-fashioned. Yet due to its popular demand as a niche tree, at our dialatree West Coast nursery, we specialise in producing Lawson cypress. Lawson still has its die-hard fans, despite being upstaged since the nineties by the brash, flashy, Leyland cypress, (a distant cousin), which grows very well on the East Coast and in Southland. Lawson does best in the wetter West and the Cold Interior. Hence Murchison, Reefton, Manawatu. As a baby tree it survives well in the nursery and competes well with the other slower growing trees after 18 months to two years, to produce a fine strong tree seedling of 20 to 30 cm tall. They can be planted at any time of year except dry summer. They are prone to drought and caterpilllars when young and losses to both are common in small trees. Summer watering with trace elements is a must. Always summer water your high value forestry trees their first year in the ground. As they grow bigger they get strong enough to shrug off a few caterpillars. It is often seen as a farm forestry shelter belt for sheep or deer paddocks. Companies are already investing in longer rotation trees, mainly Douglas Fir and Redwood trees. With the payment of carbon credits these have become an even better investment.

As we broaden our forestry portfolios, do not rule out the good old Lawson becoming popular again. It may bring our children a great future as they mill it for valuable furniture and building materials.

A pruned Lawson stand in the Buller Gorge mountains

We grow fruit and timber trees in the extreme climate of the South Island. Explore our mail order nursery for organic fruit and forestry trees.

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