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

‘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.

Living Christmas Trees Grow Up

81031All around town, there are Italian stone pines, Canary Island pines, Monterey pines and Aleppo pines that are much too big for the home gardens that they live in. Some are too close to pavement or foundations. Others are under utility cables. Many are shading or crowding out other more desirable plants. What most have in common is that they started out as living Christmas trees.

Because they seem to be so cute and innocent when they are decorated in a small pot, living Christmas trees very often get planted where they really do not belong. Not much consideration is given to their true potential. Pines are innately difficult to contain, and can not easily be pruned back for confinement once they get growing in a space that is not spacious enough for them.

Living Christmas trees simply are not often the horticulturally responsible option for Christmas trees that we would like to believe that they are. Very few end up in good situations where they have room to grow. Planting them in the wild is not practical, since their roots are too confined to survive without watering. Because they are not native, they should not be planted in the wild anyway.

Contrary to popular belief, the most popular of the living Christmas trees do not do well in containers long enough to function as Christmas trees for more than just a few years. Some spruces and small pines can be happy in containers for many years, but can be demanding. If their roots get too disfigured, they are less likely to adapt to the landscape when they outgrow containment.

Ironically, cut Christmas trees are usually more practical than living Christmas trees. They may seem to be expensive, but they are less expensive than living Christmas trees of good quality (unless a living Christmas tree functions for a few years.) Even though they are bigger, cut Christmas trees are not as heavy and unwieldy as the big tubs of soil needed to sustain living trees.

Cut Christmas trees are not harvested from forests, but are grown on farms like any other horticultural commodity. There should be no guilt associated with bringing one into the home. In the end, they can be composted or otherwise recycled like green-waste. There is no long term commitment, and no need to provide accommodations for an eventually humongous tree in the garden.

Those who insist on procuring a living Christmas tree should choose responsibly, and be ready to accommodate a growing young tree. Although not big enough to be real Christmas trees, dwarf Alberta spruce like those in the picture above are sometimes decorated as a small live Christmas tree. They happen to be conducive to confinement in proportionate pots. One in the ground, they grow like strictly conical shrubs that do not get big enough to cause problems.

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.

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.

Dawn Redwood

70816If it has bark like a coastal redwood, and foliage like a coastal redwood, and a slender conical structure like a coastal redwood, it is most likely a coastal redwood. If it turns orangish brown in autumn and defoliates through winter, it is the much less common dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. It is one of only a few distinctive genera of coniferous trees that are deciduous.

Upon closer inspection, it is not as similar to coastal redwood as it initially appears. Besides being deciduous, the foliage of dawn redwood is softer and lighter grassy green. Individual leaves are more perpendicular to the stems. Trunks are more tapered, so that they are quite lean up high, and quite plump down low. Old trees can form buttressed trunks. Strips of bark might exfoliate.

Dawn redwood is by no means a deciduous alternative to the evergreen coastal redwood. Although it grows about as fast while young, it slows with maturity. Crowded trees get taller but lanky. Exposed trees stay shorter and broader, but because they are still relatively narrowly conical, they do not make much shade at first. Old trees are more than a hundred feet tall, but could get taller.

Douglas Fir

80103Even those of us who live nowhere near its natural range live closer to Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, than we realize. Most of our homes are constructed from Douglas fir lumber. Although very uncommon in landscaped gardens, Douglas fir is the most popular Christmas tree here. Trees introduced for timber have naturalized in parts of Europe, Argentina, Chile and New Zealand.

It is such a grand evergreen conifer that Oregon designated it as the state tree. The tallest trees in the wild are more than three hundred feet tall! Trees that do not compete within a forest do not get even a quarter as tall. The flattened needles are less than an inch and a half long, and arranged on opposite sides of the stems. Light brown female cones with jagged bracts hang downward.

Douglas fir is a native of the West Coast between about the middle of British Columbia to the North, and the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Northern Sierra Nevada to the South, with a few small colonies beyond. Rocky Mountain Douglas fir is another variety from farther inland. Because it is so big and structurally deficient, Douglas fir is almost never planted into landscapes intentionally.

Dwarf Golden Arborvitae

71220These pale blue . . . whatever they are, were just too cool to pass up without a picture. Technically, they are the ‘cones’ of dwarf golden arborvitae, Platycladus orientalis (formerly Thuja orientalis) ‘Aurea Nana’. They do not look much like cones. They are only about three quarters of an inch long, and are rarely as profuse as they are here. They are less appealing as they dry and turn brown.

Dwarf golden arborvitae grows nicely while young, then slows significantly once it gets only a few feet high. Mature specimens may not get as tall as six feet, with nicely rounded form and cheery yellowish foliage. Other uncommon cultivars that are not dwarfed can eventually reach second story eaves, with greener foliage. Flat sprays of soft evergreen scale foliage is suspended vertically.

Foliage is brightest yellow when fresh and new in spring, and then fades somewhat through summer, so that it might be yellowish green by this time of year. In frostier climates, exposed tips can get bronzed through winter. Partial shade is not a problem, but subdues foliar color. Dwarf golden arborvitae, although quite resilient once established, prefers good soil and occasional watering.

Incense Cedar

71108In the west, the incense cedar, Calocedrus decurrens, was made into cedar chests or paneling for cedar closets as a substitute for the more traditional Eastern redcedar (which is incidentally a big juniper). The wood is supposedly aromatic enough to repel moths from woolens and furs. The evergreen foliage is very aromatic as well, so is sometimes used for garlands at Christmas time.

Old trees in the wild can eventually get nearly two hundred feet tall, with somewhat narrowly conical canopies. Yet, hundred year old trees that were planted in urban gardens during the Victorian period are not half as tall yet. Some are quite narrow. The rusty brown bark is deeply and coarsely furrowed. Branches can sag downward and curve back upward, which looks rather disfigured. Flattened sprays of scale-like leaves resemble those of arborvitae. Incense cedar is native to the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains.