Lawson’s cypress – Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (Port Orford cedar)

Trees & Shrubs – Lawson’s cypress – Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, known as Port Orford cedar or Lawson cypress, is a species of conifer in the genus Chamaecyparis, family Cupressaceae, native to Oregon and California. Edward Step listed the tree as – Lawson’s Cypress – Cupressus lawsoniana.

It was first discovered (by Euro-Americans) near Port Orford in Oregon and introduced into cultivation in 1854, by collectors working for the Lawson & Son nursery in Edinburgh, Scotland, after whom it was named as Lawson Cypress by the describing botanist Andrew Murray. The name “Lawson’s cypress” is widely used in horticulture.

Lawsons-cypresss-Chamaecyparis-lawsoniana Lawson's cypress - Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (Port Orford cedar)
Lawson’s cypresss – Chamaecyparis lawsoniana

It is a large evergreen tree, maturing up to 60 m (197 ft) tall or more, with trunks 1.2–2 m (4–7 ft) in diameter, with feathery foliage in flat sprays, usually somewhat glaucous (i.e. blue-green) in color. The leaves are scale-like, 3–5 mm long, with narrow white markings on the underside, and produced on somewhat flattened shoots. The foliage gives off a rather pungent scent, not unlike parsley. The seed cones are globose, 7–14 mm diameter, with 6-10 scales, green at first, maturing brown in early fall, 6–8 months after pollination. The male cones are 3–4 mm long, dark red, turning brown after pollen release in early spring. The bark is reddish-brown, and fibrous to scaly in vertical strips.

Several hundred named cultivars of varying crown shape, growth rates and foliage colour have been selected for garden planting. It thrives best in well-drained but moist soils. The following cultivars have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit:-

Lawsons-cypresss-Chamaecyparis-lawsoniana-Trunk-or-bole Lawson's cypress - Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (Port Orford cedar)
Lawson’s cypresss – Chamaecyparis lawsoniana – Trunk or bole
  • ‘Aurea Densa’
  • ‘Chilworth Silver’
  • ‘Ellwoodii’
  • ‘Ellwood’s Gold’
  • ‘Fletcheri’
  • ‘Gimbornii’
  • ‘Kilmacurragh’
  • ‘Lanei Aurea’
  • ‘Little Spire’
  • ‘Minima Aurea’
  • ‘Minima glauca’
  • ‘Pembury Blue’
  • ‘Pigmaea Argentea’
  • ‘Stardust’
  • ‘Wisselii’


Edward Step on Lawson’s Cypress – Lawson’s cypress – Chamaecyparis lawsoniana.

Lawson’s Cypress belongs to that section of Conifers which includes the Junipers and Thuias, and is a representative of the North American Sylva. It is a native of South Oregon and North California, where it is believed to have been first discovered by Jeffrey, about 1852. Two years later seeds were received by Messrs. Lawson, the Edinburgh nurserymen, from Mr. William Murray, and from these seeds were raised the first young trees of this species sent out by the firm. The name was bestowed in honour of Mr. Charles Lawson, the then head of the firm, and by this name it is generally known in Europe, but in the United States it is the Port Orford Cypress. At Port Orford, on the Oregon coast, according to Sargent, “it forms one of the most prolific and beautiful coniferous forests of the continent, unsurpassed in the variety and luxuriance of its undergrowth of Rhododendrons, Vacciniums, Raspberries, Buckthorns, and Ferns,” and any one who has seen well-grown specimens in the pleasure-grounds of this country can easily realize something of the beauty of such a forest, though allowance has to be made for the fact that in forest growth the lower branches are lost at an early age.

Lawsons-cypresss-Chamaecyparis-lawsoniana-foliage-detail Lawson's cypress - Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (Port Orford cedar)
Lawson’s cypresss – Chamaecyparis lawsoniana – foliage detail

In its native home the Lawson Cypress attains a height of between 120 and 150 feet, occasionally reaching 200 feet, with a base circumference of 40 feet. The thick brown bark splits into rounded scaly ridges. The short horizontal branches divide a good deal towards their leafy extremities, which are curved, and commonly drooping. The leaves are little evergreen scales, which overlap, and being closely pressed to the branchlet, completely clothe and hide it. They are bright dark-green in colour, and endure for three or four years. The male flowers are produced at the tips of short branchlets, formed a year earlier. They are of cylindric form, crimson in colour, and each stamen bears from two to six anther-cells. The small “cones” are more or less globular, but instead of a large number of spirally arranged overlapping scales, as in the Pines and Firs, here there are only eight, whose edges at first join to form a box. When the “cone” is ripe these scales separate, to allow the escape of the seeds.

The Lawson Cypress produces a valuable wood, close-grained and strong, yet light. It is considered one of the most important timber trees of North America; but in this country it has been planted solely with a view to its ornamental qualities. Its perfect hardiness and its freedom of growth may, with longer experience than half a century affords, lead to its being regarded as a timber producer here also.

The Common Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) of the Mediterranean region and the East, of which poets have sung in all ages, has been cultivated in this country for at least three hundred and fifty years. (Step was writing over a century ago, classification has also changed.) Wayside and Woodland Trees A POCKET GUIDE TO THE BRITISH SYLVA BY EDWARD STEP, F.L.S.