Live Christmas Trees Eventually Grow Up

Small coniferous trees do not stay small for long.

One of the problems with driving my favorite vehicles that were old long before I learned to drive them is that I spend considerable time waiting for a bus or walking. The cool thing about that is that I get to seem so much scenery that I would otherwise drive past. While waiting nearly an hour for a bus at the Cavallero Bus Terminal in Scott’s Valley, I went across the street to see the landscape of the somewhat new Post Office, which has actually been there for many years now.

The landscape is a bit sparse in front (I think because of architectural modifications after the landscape was designed), so was outfitted with recycled live Christmas trees. Although none of these particular trees seem happy in the local climate or sandy soil, I had wanted to get better acquainted with them for some time. They are an odd assortment of spruce and fir that are rare here.

The more typical concern with the more common live Christmas trees is not that they are not well suited to local climates and soils, but that they actually do too well and grow much larger than expected. Except for the small rosemary, holly and English ivy ‘trees’, most coniferous evergreen live Christmas trees are young pines that get remarkably large; and some waste no time doing it! The most common live Christmas trees are Italian stone pines, which happen to be the two very large and broad trees in Blaney Plaza in downtown Saratoga!

Canary Island pines, which had been more common than they are now, do not get quite as broad, but do get very tall and messy. Years ago, Aleppo, Eldarica and Monterey pines all took their turns being popular live Christmas trees. Each of them grows large enough to require significant garden space.

This is of course not a problem for the few live Christmas trees that happen to get planted where they have plenty of space. However, those that get planted where they do not have room to grow can cause serious problems. Because they seem so cute and innocent while they are young, and are so often expected to stay cute and innocent, many often get planted dangerously close to houses, where they can displace porches, walkways and even foundations! Large pines, particularly Italian stone pines, are also too messy and potentially combustible (if not pruned and groomed regularly) to be too close to houses.

Sadly, large pines do not like to stay in containers too long. They can be pruned for a few years, but eventually get congested roots. (Bonsai techniques of root pruning can maintain even the largest types of pines in containers indefinitely, but not many of us know these techniques.) Small pines, like Austrian black, Japanese black and Scott’s pine (which has no relation to Scott’s Valley), as well as other small coniferous evergreens, like certain junipers, can stay in containers much longer, but these are the sort that are small enough to get planted in the garden, so do not necessarily need to stay in containers anyway.

If space is not sufficient, pines and other live Christmas trees that eventually get too large really should be given to friends and neighbors who have space to accommodate them. Fortunately, most do not require much attention once they get established after two years or so.


Six on Saturday: Sale

We do not spend much on plant material here. Actually, I purchase nothing. Removal of excessive vegetation is more of a priority than adding more. We purchased quite a bit of plant material this last week only because it was so very inexpensive from a supplier that is closing for business. All of it is new to our landscape. New Zealand tea tree is common locally, but was somehow never installed here. We got a single #15 specimen, although I did not add a picture of it here. We would prefer to install all of the new material early in the rainy season. By local standards, the weather is too cool to do so comfortably.

1. Frost happens here also. Fortunately, it is not too severe. This is the coolest spot in the region. Rhody should not mix randomly capitalized letters like this. ‘E’ should match ‘e’.

2. Canna ‘Red King Humbert’ melts when the weather gets this cool, even without frost. It is already trying to replace this foliage, so might melt again, but will be fine by spring.

3. Dicksonia antarctica, Tasmanian tree fern could perform better than the rather pekid Australian tree ferns in a cool and riparian landscape. We got only a single #5 specimen.

4. Physocarpus opulifolius, ninebark is the first that I have ever met! It is bronzed, but I do not remember its cultivar. It is too cool to go look now. We got twelve #15 specimens.

5. Pinus mugo, mugo pine looks like a smaller and greener version of mature specimens of dwarf white pine of last week. They eventually get bigger. We got thirty #5 specimens.

6. Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’, bird’s nest spruce will not be combined with mugo pine here. I was warned about their redundancy of form last week. We got forty-two #5 specimens!

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar

Gray foliage and fluidly pendulous form.

In the wild, Atlas cedar can get almost a hundred feet tall. Bluish gray or rarely yellowish cultivars which are popular for home gardens are generally more compact. Perhaps they could get as grand as wild trees after a few centuries. Weeping blue Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’ is an strange one. It can barely stand fifteen feet tall and wide.

The trunks and limbs of weeping blue Atlas cedar are initially so pliant that they sag onto the ground without support. New stems try to grow upward, and may do so for a few feet, or may hang downward after achieving only a few inches of height. Trunks need binding for either straight or serpentine form. They lignify slowly as they mature and gain caliper.

Weeping blue Atlas cedar requires commitment. Indiscriminate pruning or shearing ruins the naturally sculptural form. Such pendulous growth necessitates meticulous grooming, although it may not be necessary very often within spacious situations. Expanding trunks eventually absorb the curves of serpentine form. Low stems can sprawl over the ground.


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.

Bald Cypress

Although very rare here, bald cypress is prominent enough in the South to be the state tree of Louisiana.

There are very few coniferous (cone bearing) trees that are deciduous; and because most prefer cooler winters, very few are ever seen in local gardens. The bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, happens to be one of the few deciduous coniferous trees that really could be more popular than it is, since it seems to be right at home in mild climates. It is native to coastal riparian regions from Maryland to Florida to eastern Texas, and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers as far as Indiana.

The soft foliage resembles that of coastal redwood, but is more finely textured. It is still mostly light green, but will soon be turning paper bag brown before trees go bare. The tiny individual leaves are shaped like flat pine needles, and are not much more than half an inch long. The ruddy or grayish brown bark is finely shaggy.

In the wild, mature bald cypress trees can get more than a hundred feet tall with trunks more than five feet wide. Some of the largest trees have buttressed trunks as wide as fifteen feet! Trees in swamps develop distended growth from their roots known as ‘knees’, which can stand several feet tall! Fortunately, bald cypress rarely get half as tall or develop such massive trunks locally.

Bald cypress is one of the few deciduous conifers; so the finely textured light green foliage will soon be gone.

Christmas Leftovers

Blue spruce is a good choice for a living Christmas tree, since it can be happy for years in containment.

Just three weeks after Christmas, many of us are already wondering what to do with poinsettias, cyclamens, Christmas cacti, hollies and living Christmas trees. Christmas cacti and hollies are perhaps the easiest of these to accommodate. Christmas cacti do not even need to leave the home as their flowers eventually deteriorate, since they are happy as foliar houseplants or potted on sheltered porches, and with good sun exposure, will bloom annually. Hollies make handsome shrubbery where their prickly foliage will not be a problem. Since some hollies get quite large, and others stay low and compact, it is helpful to know which variety any particular holly plant is.

Cyclamens are popular as cool season bedding plants as well as blooming potted plants. Gardeners typically dispose of those grown as bedding plants as if they were mere annuals. However, they are actually cool season perennials that go dormant through summer. If they are not in the way of warm season annuals in spring, and are among other plants that will cover for them during their dormancy, they can be left in the garden to regenerate and bloom again next winter. Individual potted plants that get too tired to be appealing in the home can be retired to partly shaded shallow ground cover or mixed perennials for a bit of winter color.

Poinsettias are a bit more complicated, which is why so many people simply discard them as they slowly lose their color after Christmas. They can keep their color for many months, and be happy as houseplants, but rarely bloom again in the home once their first bloom is gone. Alternatively, they can be planted into sheltered and partly shaded spots in the garden after frost. Through summer, they develop taller scrawny stems that bloom early in January or so. (Yes, they bloom ‘after’ Christmas.) They are sensitive to frost, so like to be under eaves.

Of all the popular potted plants associated with Christmas, living Christmas trees are the most problematic, not because they are difficult to care for, but because they so often get planted in bad situations. Only the compact conifers, like spruces, junipers and Scots pines, can stay potted to function as Christmas trees for a few years or more. Almost all other pines grow too vigorously to be happy for long in containers. After Christmas, they should instead get their circling roots severed, and then be planted into the garden.

The problem is that most living Christmas trees are Italian stone pines or Canary Island pines, each of which gets much too large for confined garden spaces. If there is not enough space for such a tree to grow to maturity without causing trouble, it best to find another home for it, or to discard it when it outgrows containment.

Japanese Black Pine

Japanese black pines develops delightful cones.

It is unfortunate that most live Christmas trees grow too large for compact home gardens. Japanese black pine, Pinus thunbergii, which is very rarely available as a live Christmas tree, does not get much taller than twenty feet locally. Although it can slowly get about as broad, its sculpturesque branch structure adapts to pruning for containment if necessary.

Japanese black pine is a notably versatile pine. Most pines are excurrent (with a primary central trunk) or develop another similarly uncompromising form. Few are as cooperative with such casual form and relatively contained size as the Japanese black pine is. In the wild, it grows taller than a hundred feet. Yet, it is also very popular for bonsai and niwaki.

The evergreen foliage is richly deep green. The paired needles are about four and a half inches long, and perhaps stiffer than they appear to be. The cones are about two or three inches long, and nicely symmetrical. Fresh foliage and fresh or dried cones are useful for home decor. Even young trees have handsomely flaky bark, which darkens with rain.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce

Dwarf Alberta spruce is densely conical.

Of all the live Christmas trees available, the dwarf Alberta spruce is perhaps the most practical. It is a shrubby little tree with a big name, Picea glauca ‘Albertiana’ ‘Conica’. (‘Albertiana’ is typically omitted.) It is a dwarf cultivar of white spruce that grows very slowly. It takes many years to potentially get eight feet tall and half as wide at the base. Wild white spruce can grow a hundred feet tall.

The main disadvantage of the dwarf Alberta spruce as a live Christmas tree is the very dense foliage. It almost seems to be artificial. The small needles are only slightly bristly, and finely textured. Otherwise, dwarf Alberta spruce can remain potted as a Christmas tree for several years. It stays sufficiently compact to return to the home annually. It just does not want to be indoors for too long.

The strictly conical form of dwarf Alberta spruce is a distinctive feature in the garden. A pair of trees elegantly flanks a doorway or walkway. A row of evenly spaced trees instills formality to a linear border of bedding plants. Although they do not get too broad, they should have enough room to grow naturally. Pruning for confinement or clearance compromises their naturally symmetrical form.

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.

Canary Island Pine

Canary Island pine displays fluffy foliage.

For spacious landscapes, Canary Island pine, Pinus canariensis, became more common than Monterey pine through the 1970s. New trees became less popular as old trees demonstrated how big they get! However, as seemingly docile live Christmas trees, they still often sneak into gardens that are not big enough for them. Their short blue juvenile needles suggest that they stay small.

They instead get quite tall. Old trees can get more than a hundred feet tall, even if their canopy gets no wider than twenty feet. Their rich brown bark is distinctively and coarsely textured. Their thin and long needles are somewhat pendulous, with a rather fluffy appearance. They are in bundles of three. Although individual trees are not very broad, their shade can get too dark for other plants.

Canary Island pine is a stately tree, but is not easy to accommodate. It produces copious foliar debris that can shade out lawn and ground cover, and accumulate on shrubbery. In unrefined areas, without other plants, foliar debris suppresses weeds. However, too much can be combustible. Such grand and resilient trees suit parks, and are ideal for freeway embankments and interchanges.