Japanese Black Pine

Japanese pine is more proportionate to confined urban home gardens than more common species.

Not many large specimens of Japanese black pine, Pinus thunbergiana, can be seen around the Santa Clara Valley. They can get taller than a hundred feet on straight trunks in their natural range on the coast of Japan, but locally, rarely get more than a quarter as tall on leaning and irregular trunks. They just are not quite as happy in the dry air here (minimal humidity). They are purported to be more tolerant of smog than most other pines that were so sensitive to the nasty smog of the 1970’s, but are more likely to become infested with insect pathogens as they get old.

With their angular and somewhat open growth, and classic pine foliage and cones, Japanese black pines are one of the more distinctive pines. Since they do not get too large, they can work well as sculptural specimen trees in small garden spaces and atriums. Even if they grow up above the eaves, their leaning trunks and outstretched lower limbs with rough gray bark are as distinguished as those of larger trees.

The paired somewhat stiff needles are about three or four inches long. The small but stout cones stay green through most of their first year of development, and then turn brown as they mature and open to disperse their seed in the second year. They are only about two inches long, but can become annoyingly abundant among aging trees.


Atlas Cedar

Amy Carter had the most boss treehouse in an Atlas cedar.

My generation can remember when Amy Carter, the daughter of former President Carter, got a treehouse built in a mature Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica, at the White House. It was so cool that it was ‘boss’! Besides being more luxurious than a typical treehouse, it was designed by President Carter to not damage the tree even slightly.

Here in the west, most Atlas cedars are cultivars (cultivated varieties) with blue foliage that often rivals that of Colorado blue spruce. Most have strictly horizontal or angular limbs with stiff, densely foliated branches. Some are so pendulous (weeping) that they need to be staked to be kept off the ground. They actually look great trained along the tops of retaining walls, even without staking, with their blue foliage cascading over. Others are strictly upright and narrow. Colorado blue spruce may have better color; but Atlas cedar has more interesting variation of form.

It is also better adapted to the local Mediterranean climate than spruces and other conifers are, and gets much larger. Mature Atlas cedars can get as tall as a hundred feet, with trunks as wide as five feet.


Arborvitae is mostly tall evergreen shrubbery.

During the Colonial Period of America, American arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis, was one of the first native species to become popular for home gardening. It is native as far south as the Great Smoky Mountains, and as far east as Minnesota. Wild trees can be fifty feet tall, with trunks as wide as three feet. They might grow larger to compete with other trees.

Of course, the oldest cultivated varieties, as well as relatively modern cultivars, are much more compact. Many modern cultivars are hybrids. Some are different species. They are densely evergreen shrubbery that work well as hedging. Their distinctly ruddy or grayish brown bark is barely visible. Their bloom is unimpressive. Foliage is their primary asset.

It is quite an asset. Although arborvitae is conducive to shearing, its billowy foliar texture is too appealing to compromise by frequent shearing. Scale leaves are barely more than an eighth of an inch long, like those of junipers, but are more pliable on soft and flattened foliar sprays. Such sprays are delightful coniferous evergreens for wreaths and garlands.

Mugo Pine

Mugo pine is more shrubby than tree like.

Most shrubs and many perennials get larger than the diminutive mugo pine, Pinus mugo. The most common type grows very slowly as a dense and rounded mound only a few feet tall and maybe twice as wide. Only a very old specimen might reach an eave. The paired dark green needles are about one or two inches long. The symmetrical brown cones are a bit shorter. Mugo pine is also known as Swiss mountain pine and because of a misprint in the eighteenth century, mugho pine. Although native to mountains in Europe, mugo pine is most popular in Japanese gardens and for bonsai. Because it grows so slowly, it can be happy in planters and large pots. In large urns of regularly changed flowering annuals, it can be a nice permanent and evergreen centerpiece.

Not All Evergreens Are Conifers

41217thumb‘Conifer’ and ‘evergreen’ are almost synonymous. Of the two, ‘evergreen’ is the more familiar term. Some people do not know what a ‘conifer’ is. Simply speaking, an evergreen is a plant that retains foliage throughout the year, even while deciduous plants defoliate through winter. A conifer is a plant that produces seeds in cones, such as pine cones, although many are not easy to recognize as such. Actually though, not all evergreens are conifers; and not all conifers are evergreens.

Southern magnolia, glossy privet, lily of the Nile, all sorts of eucalyptus and all sorts of palms retain their foliage through winter, but none are conifers. Larch, dawn redwood and bald cypress are conifers, but are also deciduous. This can be quite a surprise for anyone expecting them to be evergreen. The foliage turns brown enough to resemble death before defoliation, although larch can get quite colorful in autumn where winters are cooler.

Now that flowers for cutting are scarce, evergreen foliage is popularly cut and brought into the home instead. Here in California, not many of us have fir or spruce out in the garden. Redwood, pine, cypress and cedar (deodar and Atlas) are more common. Leyland cypress, Western red cedar, incense cedar and the various chamaecyparis are not as common, but are just as effective. Incense cedar as well as some of the junipers (unshorn) are particularly aromatic.

Since the various hollies are uncommon here, Californians prefer other evergreens with berries, such as firethorn (pyracantha), contoneaster and toyon. Incidentally, toyon had been so recognized as a substitute for holly that it had historically been known as California holly, and is the origin of the name of Hollywood. Magnolia grenades (fruiting structures) can function like weird pine cones. Southern magnolia has big and glossy leaves with rusty orange undersides. They can provide bold color and texture, even if they have dried to a rich brown.

There are of course no rules for cut foliage. Anything that is still foliated and appealing in the garden may work nicely in the home. Ferns are an obvious choice, although some drop spores that stain fabric. Various pittosporums, podocarpus, eucalyptus, New Zealand flax and even the leaves of bird of paradise are all worth a try.

Spruced Up

P91214KSpruce happen to very compatible with the landscape style here. They fit in nicely with surrounding redwoods, but are more proportionate to sunny spots of some of the refined landscapes. We intend to add a few into some of the landscapes as they get renovated. They will stay branched to the ground, like big dense shrubbery, with the personality of distinguished forest trees.

Several dwarf Alberta spruce, which is a very compact cultivar of white spruce, have been incorporated into landscapes that were renovated during the past few years. They really are dinky though, and stay smaller than most shrubbery. Some of the very compact cultivars of blue spruce that we would like to add next will eventually get significantly bigger, but do not grow fast.

A few spruce that grow more like tree rather than shrubbery would be really excellent. The taller blue spruce with more open branch structure are no longer available from local nurseries, but could be ordered. I particularly want to try any of the white, black, red, Engelmann or Sitka spruce that are endemic to North America, although I know some might not be happy here.

Sitka spruce just happened to become available. A colleague brought these eight seedlings back from the coast up near the Oregon border, and will probably get a few more. They are prolific there, and get pulled like many other weeds. At the rate they are growing, they could get planted into a landscape even before we get any blue spruce! I am already very pleased with them.

For a while, I grew each of the six North American spruce, but only in cans. Since these Sitka spruce arrived, I have been wanting to get the other five. White spruce is ‘sort of’ here. Blue spruce will arrive soon enough.

‘Red Star’ Atlantic Whitecedar

60106Is it red or white? Actually, it is neither. ‘Whitecedar’ is the common name for Chamaecyparis thyoides, which is a formidable coastal conifer from Maine to Mississippi. ‘Red Star’ is a much smaller garden variety. Its finely textured foliage is bluish green when it first emerges in spring, and can turn slightly purplish or bronzed gray if it gets cold enough in winter, but never turns red.

In more humid climates, ‘Red Star’ Atlantic whitecedar can eventually reach second story eaves, and can get half as broad. It rarely gets half as large locally, and can take quite a few years to do so. The slightly aromatic evergreen growth is densely conical, almost like a lumpy dwarf Alberta Spruce with an upwardly rounded underside. It can be a bit more sculptural if partially shaded.

Even without pruning, ‘Red Star’ Atlantic whitecedar is symmetrical enough for formal landscapes. Alternatively, it can add a bit of formality to relaxed landscapes. Although it is slow to provide privacy, it works nicely as an unshorn hedge. If somewhat crowded in a row, it grows taller faster. Shorn hedges lack natural form, but can recover their natural texture between shearing.

Deodar Cedar

81205Some of us may remember deodar cedar, Cedrus deodara, from the opening scene of the Andy Griffith Show. They were in the background as Andy Taylor and his son Opie skipped stones on Myers Lake near Mayberry in North Carolina. Those well established and naturalized trees and the pond are actually in Franklin Canyon Park in the Santa Monica Mountains above Beverly Hills.

If only it did not get big enough to shade most of a compact home garden, deodar cedar would be better than most other evergreen coniferous trees used in California landscapes. It enjoys the warmth and sunshine here, and does not require any more water than what most regions that are not desert get from rain. It eventually gets fifty feet tall and thirty feet wide, and might get bigger.

The glaucous grayish needle leaves are about an inch or two long, and are arranged either in tight terminal clusters on the tips of short and stout stems, or singly on longer and pendulous shoots. Ideally, trees develop conical canopies with horizontal limbs that droop at the tips. Some trees develop a few main trunks down low, or big structurally deficient limbs that curve irregularly upward.

My First Tree

71108Calocedrus decurrens. Incense cedar. The first tree that I ever planted was a small incense cedar, like the tree in the picture here. Of course, it was not this big when I planted it.

It came from my maternal grandparents’ cabin near Pioneer, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It was a wild seedling that might have been pulled up because it was where the cabin was to be built. My grandmother planted it into a small wooden planter in the backyard. Once it recovered and started to grow, she gave it to my parents, who had me plant it on a small hill in the back yard. Although not native to the Santa Clara Valley, it did well, and grew tall and lean. I tend to compare all incense cedars to my first tree.

Almost all are older and bigger, with plump trunks. I can guess from their age that most were planted during the Victorian Period. Quite a few were planted half a century later, during the 1950s, when Monterey pine and Monterey cypress were too commonly planted. Not many incense cedars are young. It is as if they had been available in nurseries until the early 1970s, and were not grown much after that. I planted a few in Scott’s Valley back in the 1990s, on the southern margin of what is now Sky Park, but only because my colleague happened to grow them.

Because it was less expensive to transport ‘relatively’ local lumber than to import Eastern red cedar lumber from the East, incense cedar provided the veneer for closets of old homes here, as well as cedar chests. Small groves of incense cedar were grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains as a local source of cedar wood. Now that cedar closets and chests are no loner necessary to repel moths from woolens and furs, the naturalized groves are abandoned, and now grow wild. I know that they are technically not locally native, but I still like to see a few of them around. They look so much like my first tree.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce

81031It is so tempting to dress up a densely conical dwarf Alberta spruce, Picea glauca ‘Conica’, as a garden gnome for Halloween. They are so symmetrical that they seem to have been shorn that way. They are too small to be classified as trees, but are not as shrubby as most shrubbery either. Their practicality is rather limited to formal situations where their strict symmetry is desirable.

Dwarf Alberta spruce is very different from the straight (not dwarf) species that can get to almost fifty feet tall. It instead grows very slowly, and stays quite small, although it can eventually reach downstairs eaves. The finely textured evergreen foliage is soft but slightly bristly. The tiny individual needles are only about half an inch long. The aroma of crushed foliage might be objectionable.

Dwarf Alberta spruce is popularly grown as a potted Christmas tree, and happens to be one of the few coniferous plants that can stay potted long enough to functions as such for a few years. In the ground, it wants rich but well drained soil. It can rot if the soil stays too damp. Red spider mite can be a potential problem. Although it likes full sun exposure, it can get roasted in hot situations.