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.

Christmas Trees Dead Or Alive

Live Christmas trees can get huge.

Poinsettias, Christmas cacti, cyclamen, various forced bulbs and several other seasonal potted plants are again becoming popular. It happens annually prior to Christmas. Heath, heather, rosemary, English holly with berries, and delightful compact conifers have been gaining popularity for many past years. Seasonal potted plants are increasingly diverse.

Unfortunately, few survive for long after Christmas. Forced bulbs exhaust their resources. Cyclamen are likely to rot after a month or so. Very few retire to a garden. Poinsettia gets too lanky in the garden to be a favorite. Most seasonal plants simply succumb to neglect. After their primary performances, they are no longer interesting enough to justify tending.

In reality, some of these seasonal potted plants are little more than cut flowers with roots. These roots allow them to live longer than cut flowers, but their ultimate fate is the same. Wreaths, garlands and various seasonal cut greenery likewise serve a purpose, but only temporarily. Without roots, it all lacks any potential to retire into a garden after Christmas.

Christmas trees are really not much different. Although there are several different sorts of Christmas trees, they fit into similar categories as cut foliage and seasonal potted plants. Obviously, they are seasonal. They need not last much longer than Christmas. Although, some have a potential to do so, few survive or function for more than a few Christmases.

Contrary to popular belief, and their expense, cut Christmas trees are generally the most practical Christmas trees. They are essentially a very substantial sort of cut foliage. They grow on farms like any other foliage and vegetables. After such a tree serves its purpose, it resigns to compost or green waste recyclery. A freshly cut tree can replace it next year.

Large potted Christmas trees may seem to be more practical, but require maintenance to remain as appealing as they are now for another year. Despite the expense, few last that long. They want to get out of confinement, so that they can grow as trees. Pre-decorated small trees are Italian stone pines. They grow much too big for contained home gardens.

Blue Spruce

Most blue spruce are garden varieties.

Sitka and Brewer spruce both live at low elevations and near the coast within their native ranges. Yet, neither perform as well here as blue spruce, Picea pungens, which is native to much higher inland regions of the Rocky Mountains. It grows neither as big nor as fast here as in the wild, so few old local trees are taller than thirty feet, or broader than twenty. 

Although compact, blue spruce should get sufficient space to develop its densely conical form without pruning for confinement or clearance. Such pruning is disfiguring. Since the evergreen canopy is so dense, it should retain low branches to the ground for as long as possible. Blue spruce works more like big and formal shrubbery than like compact trees.

Some cultivars of blue spruce are very stout and rounded. Most have remarkably blue or silvery color. Seed grown trees (which are not cultivars) are sometimes available online. They have potential to exhibit notable variation. Some might develop slightly more open canopies, with elegantly upwardly curved limbs. Spruce needles are about an inch long with quite a prickly texture.

Golden Pfitzer Juniper

Fresh new shoots are most colorful.

Of the several junipers that were too common decades ago, the golden pfitzer juniper, Juniperus X pfitzeriana ‘Area’, was the one outfitted with cheery, bright yellow new foliage each spring. Similar but more compact varieties that are more popular now were rare back then, or simply not yet invented. Contrary to the stigma, golden pfitzer juniper is a very tough shrub, which is why so many from decades ago remain in older gardens, and new plants can sometimes be found in nurseries. Once established, they need very little water, or none at all. A bit of partial shade is tolerable, but inhibits color. Angular branches radiate outward, with the finely textured foliage drooping only slightly at the tips. Mature plants get wider than six feet, and taller than four feet. Crowded plants can stand taller than six feet. Golden pfitzer juniper can technically be shorn as hedges, but are so much more appealing if selectively pruned to maintain their natural form. They are at their best where they have space to spread out naturally without pruning.

‘San Jose’ Juniper

Do you know the way to San Jose?

Juniper seedlings are initially outfitted with needle-like juvenile foliage. As they mature, most develop scale-like adult foliage. ‘San Jose’ juniper is the juniper that does not want to grow up. Even very old specimens exhibit odd tufts of juvenile foliage. Variegated ‘San Jose’ juniper has random cream colored blotches. The angular but sprawling stems can spread more than six feet wide without getting two feet deep.

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.

Christmas Trees Are Major Cut Foliage

Few Christmas trees are naturally compact.

Cut foliage is a common ingredient of ready-made mixed bouquets. Bundles and individual stems of cut foliage are available with cut flowers from florists. Cut foliage is the primary component of most wreaths and garlands that are now so popular for Christmas décor. It is another horticultural commodity like cut flowers, bulbs or nursery stock. Cut foliage is like vegetables that no one eats.

Cut Christmas trees are extreme cut foliage. They just happen to be much larger than stems of cut foliage that become wreathes and garlands. They grow on plantations like other crops. Contrary to a rather popular belief, Christmas trees are a renewable resource. Furthermore, cut Christmas tree production is less detrimental to the environment than the production of live Christmas trees.

Time and space are the only advantages of live Christmas tree production. As they grow, they occupy less space for less time. Obviously, cut Christmas trees need more space and time to grow. However, they do not consume proportionate quantities of water and fertilizers. Nor do they necessitate the consumption of the various plastics and synthetic potting media that potted trees need.

Regardless of the best intentions, few live Christmas trees come home for Christmas after their first. They often get too shabby through warm and dry summer weather to bring back in. The small and inexpensive sort with attached decorations rarely survive potted for more than a few months. If live Christmas trees were less perishable, their consumptive production could be more justified.

Whether they retire after a single Christmas or several, live Christmas trees must recover from previous shearing. Only dwarf Alberta spruce are naturally densely conical. Pruning other species to strict conical form is unnatural and disfiguring. As they recover, live Christmas trees need space to grow. Many, such as Italian stone pine and Canary Island pine, get far too big for urban gardens.

Experienced arborists concur that many problematic trees were originally small and seemingly innocent live Christmas trees.

English Yew

English yew has inhabited landscapes and gardens for centuries. (This is not my picture.)

It is difficult to know how big any of the various cultivars of English yew,Taxus baccata, will eventually get, and how long they will take to get that big. Most can get almost as tall as thirty feet. Some can get nearly twice as tall. However, they can take more than a century or several centuries to do so. Old specimens around Europe are significantly older than two thousand years. Slow growth is an advantage for formal hedges that get shorn only annually. English yew prefers regular watering. Partial shade is not a problem.

Irish yew is actually a cultivar of English yew with densely upright growth. The various golden yews have yellowish foliage. Otherwise, most English yews have finely textured dark green foliage on angular stems that resemble those of redwood. Individual leaves are very narrow, and only about half and inch to an inch long. The peeling dark brown bark resembles that of large junipers, but not quite as shaggy. English yew is toxic.

Arizona Cypress

Arizona cypress can be strikingly blue.

If Hetz blue juniper grew as a tree, it might look something like Arizona cypress, Cupressus arizonica. The evergreen foliage of modern cultivars is almost as blue as blue spruce. Older trees that grew from seed (not cloned) can exhibit significant genetic variability, and are more grayish green than blue. Some are stout and shrubby. Taller specimens might exhibit sculpturally irregular form.

In the wild, Arizona cypress is even more variable, with as many as five distinct varieties. Some varieties are sometimes classified as separate species. Shorter types may get no taller than a two story house. Taller types get twice as tall, and as wide as thirty feet. Trunks can get two feet wide. Smooth Arizona cypress has patches of distinctively flaking bark over shiny chestnut brown bark.

Arizona cypress are best where they can develop their natural form. They prefer no more than minor pruning of awkward stems. Although, none seem to mind grooming to eliminate dead or aging stems. Modern cultivars are more conducive to minor pruning than older trees. Some cultivars supposedly make nicely dense shorn hedges. Furthermore, shearing enhances the blue foliar color.

Incense Cedar

Incense cedar produces delightfully aromatic wood.

Nowadays, the delightfully aromatic foliage is familiar primarily in garlands at Christmas time. Most of the foliage of old trees is too high up for direct contact. Young trees with low foliage are rare. Incense cedar, Calocedrus decurrens, is unfortunately not as popular as it was a century ago. At that time, it was as utilitarian as it was appealing for spacious but minimally irrigated landscapes.

Incense cedar wood made good shingles and laminate for closets and cedar chests. The wood is aromatic enough to repel moths from woolens and furs, which were still popular then. It was less expensive to import than Eastern red cedar. It grows wild relatively nearby, in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains. Incense cedar fence posts might resist decay as well as redwood posts.

If the wild, where they compete with other trees for sunlight, old trees can get almost two hundred feet tall. However, well exposed old trees in Victorian gardens are less than half as tall after more than a century. Their canopies are generally conical. Large limbs can curve upward like extra trunks. Flat foliar sprays resemble those of arborvitae. The deeply furrowed bark is cinnamon brown.