True North American cypresses tend to be highly localized and scattered in distribution, from the storm-battered Monterey cypresses of the California coast to the Arizona cypress of Southwest savannas and chaparral. But a number of species are widely cultivated, and logs from a downed tree crop up regularly on the local market as do those from the distantly related bald-cypress. Such trees don't produce the finest firewood but can still come in handy when beginning a blaze.
Cypress wood tends to be fairly mediocre or, at best, serviceable as firewood. Like most other softwoods, which includes all conifer species, it usually burns fairly quickly if well-seasoned, providing little long-lasting value. Its resins may create substantial smoke -- a sign that much energy is going into vaporizing moisture -- and also promote the accumulation of creosote in chimney flues. Thus, cypress wood may be best used in an outdoor campfire or cooking fire rather than a home fireplace.
While Western North America has a number of species of native cypress, another tree recognized by the name in the Southeast may be more familiar. Actually, the bald-cypress is in a distinct genus, Taxodium, though belonging to the same family as true cypresses. This occasionally massive tree, often buttressed at the base, has a wide distribution in swamps, riverine forests and other bottomlands. Poorly seasoned bald-cypress wood can be moist and difficult to burn -- though aromatic in the flame -- and, like the true cypresses, is usually a better choice for an outdoor blaze.
Like many softwoods, however, both true cypresses and bald-cypresses can provide fine wood for kindling. A log is easy to split into small, thin shanks, and the branch and root nubs of a weathered, long-fallen tree -- if you have the permission to utilize it -- can also be used. Assemble a nest of tinder, which might be anything from seasoned pine needles or cones and dried moss to crumpled paper or wood shavings. Then frame around this a loose cone of cypress kindling. Ignite the tinder and bolster the flame with steady exhalations or a fanned plate. As the cypress kindling catches, begin laying thicker pieces of longer-lasting hardwoods like oak or hickory onto the fire.
Like other woods, cypress timber should be seasoned before use in the fire for the best results. Cutting a tree in autumn or early winter is typically a good bet, as the tissues naturally contain less moisture at the onset of the cold season. Split the wood upon cutting. Arrange the logs in a loosely structured stack off the ground, as on a palette. If you can roof these with an open-air woodshed or heavy-duty tarp tied above, you can shield the pile from precipitation while still allowing for airflow. The seasoning process may last six months to a year or more -- longer if the cypress or bald-cypress was particularly wet. Well-seasoned firewood tends to pale in color, slough off bark, crack broadly at its ends and emit a resonant clacking sound when struck together.