Those of us who appreciate olive trees for their fruit production or distinctively gnarly trunks probably would not understand the popularity of the Little Ollie olive, Olea europaea ‘Little Ollie’. Not only is is completely fruitless, but it lacks sculptural trunks and limbs. It is instead a short and and shrubby plant that gets only about three or four feet tall, with very dense grayish green foliage. Only the narrow evergreen leaves are recognizable as those of an olive tree.
Little Ollie olive behaves something like boxwood, and does not grow much faster. It can even be shorn as a hedge or topiary. It is quite resilient to heat and harsh exposure, and once established, it does not need much water. Because it is so compact, and has such resilient roots, it is popularly grown in large urns or planters. The grayish foliage is a nice backdrop for more colorful annuals and flowering perennials.
Is 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.
The big name of this little pine takes some explaining. Domingo pine is a cultivator of an interspecific hybrid of two distinct specie, Eastern white pine, Pinus strobus, and Mexican white pine, Pinus ayacahuite. Until a better name in invented, it is known as Pinus strobus X ayacahuite ‘Domingo’. It is typically but incorrectly abbreviated as Pinus ‘Domingo’, or Pinus strobus ‘Domingo’.
Like many hybrids, Domingo pine got the best of both parents, and also stays compact enough for suburban gardens. Although not quite as soft and blue as Eastern white pine, its finely textured and dense pine needle foliage has a grayish sheen to it. Like the Mexican white pine, it does not need much water once established. It wants full sun exposure but is otherwise not demanding.
Young trees may seem to grow quickly, but growth slows significantly with maturity so that trees to not get much taller than second story eaves. Their typically conical form does not get much more than half as wide as tall. They look best where they have room to stay well branched from top to bottom. Because they are not very big, clearance pruning of lower limbs comprises their symmetry.
Good old-fashioned Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, which can almost reach the eaves, can be difficult to obtain nowadays. More compact modern cultivars do not get much more than six feet tall, and some stay less than three feet tall. Foliage is airier in partial shade, but more colorful where more exposed.
As it begins to emerge in spring, new foliage is pinkish or reddish before greening. It slowly bronzes by autumn. Some cultivars turn ruddy or orangish, or even burgundy. Individual leaves are actually quite large, but are divided into many small, diamond shaped leaflets. Some cultivars have very narrow leaflets. Tiny white flowers bloom through summer. Bright red berries ripen through autumn.
Although unrelated, Heavenly bamboo grows like bamboo, with vertical canes developing from creeping rhizomes. Overgrown or deteriorating canes should be cut to the ground as they get replaced by newer canes. Otherwise, they become top-heavy and inhibit development of new canes. Foliage should not be shorn, since it is not much to look at without its naturally intricate texture.
Calocedrus 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.
The first half of the name sound appealing enough. The second half, not so much. Do the seeds grow into snails? Do they just look like snails? Not many have seen them. Tiny pale white flowers that are supposed to bloom in spring, as well as small black berries that develop after bloom, are rare. Laurel-leaf snailseed, Cocculus laurifolius, is grown just for its glossy evergreen foliage.
The foliage superficially resembles that of common privets. Upon closer inspection, the leaves are somewhat elongated, and outfitted with distinct marginal veins flanking the midveins. As stems that become heavy with lush foliage lean over, vigorously vertical stems fill in the space, until they too arch over as they become fluffy with foliage. Mature trees might get twenty feet high and wide.
Because of its complaisant roots and tolerance of partial shade, laurel-leaf snailseed is popularly installed as a foundation plant (at the foundation of a home) but then obscures windows as it gets too big and awkward. Its arching branch structured does not do well with formal shearing. It works much better as an informal screen in the background, or as small tree with multiple trunks.
With indiscriminate pruning, glossy abelia, Abelia X grandiflora, will never develop its natural form, with elegantly long and thin stems that arch gracefully outward. Sadly, almost all get shorn into tight shrubbery or hedges that rarely bloom. If only old stems get selectively pruned out as they get replaced by fresh new stems, mature shrubs can get eight feet tall and twelve feet wide.
Against their bronzy green foliage, the tiny pale pink flowers that bloom all summer have a rustic appeal. In abundance, they can be slightly fragrant. The tiny leaves are not much more than an inch long. Vigorous young canes that shoot nearly straight out from the roots slowly bend from the weight of their bloom and foliage as they mature.
Partial shade is not a problem for glossy abelia, but will inhibit bloom somewhat. Young plants want to be watered regularly. Old plants are not nearly so demanding, and can survive with notably less water. If alternating canes is too much work to restore old and neglected plants, all stems can be cut back to the ground at the end of winter. New growth develops quickly.
Plants are usually well suited to the climates that they are native to. Glaucous (slightly reflective grayish) foliage is more common in harsh climates where darker green foliage might get cooked by the sun. Pendulous growth is more common among plants that want to shed heavy snow efficiently. Kashmir cypress, Cupressus cashmeriana, has both, but is from a tropical monsoonal climate.
It is a stately tree that can eventually get taller than fifty feet. Within its native range in the eastern Himalaya, old trees can get three times as tall! Limber stems might hang downward several feet. The minute scale leaves are neatly set on limber stems arranged in flat sprays, similar to, but more defined than those of arborvitae. Foliage is silvery grayish green, and perhaps slightly bluish.
Mature trees do not need much water, but would probably be happier if watered occasionally through summer. Kashmir cypress is unfortunately susceptible to the same diseases and insects that afflict Leyland cypress. That is a serious risk to consider before planting prominent specimens. Incidentally, Kashmir cypress is also known as Bhutan cypress, and is the national tree of Bhutan.
The many cultivars of arborvitaes of home gardening have been so extensively bred and selected that only the foliar texture resembles that of their ancestors. ‘Emerald Green’ which is also known by its Danish name ‘Smaragd’, is a cultivar of arborvitae that was developed from the white cedar, Thuja occidentalis,which grows wild from Minnesota to New Brunswick, as a forty foot tall tree!
‘Emerald Green’ grows quite fast while young, but should get no taller than about fifteen feet, and no wider than about four feet. It is one of the best columnar arborvitaes for tall hedging. Although they can be shorn, they are so dense and uniform that they are at their best if only occasionally trimmed of stray stems, or to keep taller specimens from getting too much taller than shorter ones.
The tiny evergreen scale leaves are tightly arranged on vertically arranged flat foliar sprays. Foliage is quite dense, and softer than that of most other conifers. A bit of shade is tolerable, but too much compromises foliar density. Bloom is barely noticeable, and seeded cones are not much to look at. The shaggy ruddy brown bark is handsome but seldom seen on well foliated specimens.
Fans of the Brady Bunch might recognized agonis, Agonis flexuosa, from the front yard of the Brady Residence. That particular tree was rather dark olive green, and might have grown two or three feet annually to reach the upstairs eaves. Most of the popular modern cultivars are darker bronze or burgundy, and probably stay a bit shorter, but attain the same elegant and slender form.
The narrow evergreen leaves hang softly from limber stems, like the foliage of weeping willow. Anyone who has pruned agonis has likely noticed that the foliage is aromatic if disturbed. The tiny pinkish white flowers that bloom in spring or summer are not much to look at, but can be fragrant if there are enough of them. The fibrous and furrowed bark is quite distinguished for a small tree.
Agonis is not too demanding as long as it gets enough sunlight. It will lean away from shade. It prefers to be watered somewhat regularly through summer, although established plants can be quite happy if watered only a few times. Too much water rots their roots. If pruned to promote branching while young, and pruned for confinement as it matures, agonis can be a striking unshorn hedge.