No one can deny that junipers are useful, sustainable and resilient. They tolerate cold, heat and harsh exposure. Once established, they do not need much water.
Sea green juniper, Juniperus chinensis ‘Sea Green’, is a bit lighter green than more traditional dark green junipers. It can grow somewhat slowly, eventually getting to about five feet tall, and a foot or two wider. Like all junipers, it should never be indiscriminately shorn, but should instead be selectively pruned to exploit its distinctive ‘fountain’ shaped branch structure that points up and outward from the base.
It is neither a fern nor a pine. Fern pine, Podocarpus gracilior, can be a tree taller than fifty feet, and half as broad, but is often a shorn shrub or hedge that can be kept less than eight feet tall. Stems are limber enough while young to be espaliered. The finely textured evergreen foliage is somewhat yellowish out in full sun, and darker green in partial shade. Individual leaves are as long as two and a half inches, and less than a quarter inch wide, and hang almost like fat pine needles. Some but not all mature trees can drop a bit of messy fruit with hard pits that are a bit larger than those of cherries. Bark gets distinctively blotched as it ages. The deep roots can be remarkably complaisant with concrete. Outer growth can get damaged by the harshest frosts every few winters or so, or roasted by hot dry heat every few summers.
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.
Of all the popular pittosporums in Western landscapes nowadays, the karo, Pittosporum crassifolium, is certainly not one of the most familiar. It might have been one of the earliest to have been popularized here though. Because of its resiliency to coastal climates, it was a common hedge in San Francisco during the Victorian Period. With minimal watering, it did well farther inland too.
Karo are nice fluffy evergreen shrubs that can get fifteen feet tall. They excel both as informal screens and refined hedges, and can be staked as small trees on single straight trunks. Alternatively, lower growth of big shrubby specimens can be pruned up to expose a few delightfully sculptural trunks. ‘Compactum’ is a densely foliated mounding cultivar that might stay less than three feet tall.
The Latin name, Pittosporum crassifolium, is quite descriptive. The literal translation is “sticky-seed thick-leaf”. The two or three inch long leaves are not really thick, but their slightly grayish upper surfaces and more grayish tomentous (fuzzy) undersides make them seem almost succulent. Small and round seed pods eventually split open to reveal dark seed glued together with sticky resin.
A surplus of common names seems to be a common theme for many plants that we thought we knew the names of. The simple Pittosporum tobira, which might be known here by its Latin name, might instead be known as mock orange, Australian laurel, Japanese pittosporum, and Japanese cheesewood. Its native range is about as diverse, including Greece, Japan, Korea and China.
Back in the 1990s, the compact cultivar known as ‘Wheeler’s Dwarf’ was common enough to be as cliché as tam junipers were in the 1950s. There are actually a few other dwarf and variegated cultivars that do not share that reputation. Most are low, dense and mounding. ‘Variegata’, although not a compact dwarf, grows slower and stays smaller than the unvariegated straight species.
Otherwise, Pittosporum tobira gets about ten feet tall and wide. It can eventually get significantly taller, especially if lower growth is pruned away to expose the sculptural trunks within. If shorn as a hedge, it should not be shorn so frequently that the dense foliage is always tattered. Leaves are delightfully glossy and convex. Small trusses of modest pale white flowers are sometimes fragrant.
Conifers 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.