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.

Evergreen Trees Drop Leaves Too

IMG_20141004_153228As the deciduous trees that will soon be coloring for autumn defoliate for winter, the evergreen trees will become more prominent. Some evergreen trees will drop some of their foliage along with deciduous trees through autumn and winter. Many drop some of their old foliage as new foliage develops in spring, or later in summer. All are on distinct schedules, but are never completely bare.

That certainly does not mean that evergreen trees are not messy. To the contrary, some happen to be significantly messier than some deciduous trees are. They are only evergreen because they do not drop their old foliage until it is replaced by new foliage. Whether individual leaves last just slightly longer than a single year, or for several years, they eventually shed and fall to the ground.

In fact, evergreen trees may shed small but pestering volumes of foliage for a few months or even constantly throughout the year. Some deciduous trees defoliate so efficiently within a very limited time once the weather gets cool, that all of their fallen leaves will be raked away within only two or three weeks. Of course, some trees, both deciduous and evergreen, drop flowers or fruit or both.

Not only do most evergreen trees shed for a longer time than most deciduous trees do, but most shed foliage that is not so easy to rake away. Cypress shed minute and finely textured leaves that are impossible to rake from lawns, but toxic if they accumulate. Juniper and arborvitae are easier to accommodate only because the trees are smaller. Fir, spruce and cedar have bigger needles.

Broadleaf evergreen trees are very different from coniferous trees. Their leaves are considerably easier to rake. They are generally more substantial than those of deciduous trees though. Some may not decompose so readily in deep groundcover. Southern magnolia leaves are notably slow to compost. Instead of producing cones, some broadleaf trees drop acorns or other messy seed.

Nonetheless, where there are compatible with their landscapes, evergreen trees are as practical as deciduous trees are.

Oriental Spruce

60127If it got as big as it does in the wild, Oriental spruce, Picea orientalis, would not fit into many home gardens. It can get more than a hundred feet tall! Fortunately, it does not often get much more than twenty five feet tall locally. Trees that compete with taller trees in forested landscapes might get to forty feet tall. Their symmetrically conical canopies get about fifteen or twenty feet broad.

The tiny needles of Oriental spruce are less than half an inch long, so are smaller than those of any other spruce. Relative to the finely textured deep green foliage, the densely arranged and neatly angular stems are notably stout. Like other spruces, Oriental spruce is best where it has sufficient space to retain lower stems down to the ground. It can look rather silly with a bare lower trunk.

Garden varieties are more common and stay smaller than the straight species. ‘Skylands’ has yellow foliage, although it fades in warm situations. ‘Aurea’ has paler pastel yellow new foliage that matures to green. ‘Gowdy’ has a narrow columnar form, and grows very slowly. ‘Nana’ develops as a plump low mound that stays less than three feet tall. All like to be watered somewhat regularly.

Conifers Have A Woodsy Style

81205Conifers are the most prominent forest trees in North America, but are notably scarce in home gardens. Except for compact varieties of juniper (which were probably too common years ago) and arborvitae, most conifers are trees that get too big for residential gardens, and few adapt to regular pruning that might keep them contained. Almost all are evergreen, so block sunlight in winter.

Gingko (maidenhair tree), bald cypress and dawn redwood happen to be deciduous conifers; but gingko is typically thought of as a ‘broadleaf’ (not coniferous) tree, and bald cypress and dawn redwood are quite rare. The various podocarpuses are useful coniferous trees that happen to be very complaisant to pruning, but like gingko, they are typically thought of as broadleaf trees.

Junipers and arborvitaes are just as practical for home gardens as they ever were, and the many modern varieties that have been introduces over the years are even more interesting than the old classics. Modern arborvitaes are more compact. Modern junipers exhibit more colorful foliage, and more distinctive forms and textures. Foliage can be lemony yellow or blue like a blue spruce.

Simply speaking, conifers are cone bearing plants. They are typically outfitted with needle or scale leaves. Of course, it is not that simple. Juniper seeds are contained in fleshy structures that resemble berries. Gingo and podocarpus seeds actually come with a squishy mess. So, ‘cones’ are not always as easy to recognize as pine cones are. Neither are the wide ‘needles’ of gingko.

Redwoods, pines, cedars, cypresses, Leyland cypresses, spruces and firs are the more familiar of the larger coniferous trees. Bunya bunya, Norfolk Island pine, western red cedar, incense cedar and the various yews and chamaecyparises are somewhat rare. Larch and hemlock are very rare because they do not like the climate here. With few exceptions, these larger conifers have dominant central trunks that can not be pruned down without ruining the structure of the trees as they develop.80516