The case of the two-toned conifers

A few days ago the sun was shining bright, the strong east wind had subsided, and the temperature must have been in the mid-fifties – it was a great day to get outside and begin the gardening season of the new year. One project that had been on my mind for some time, and I really did need to complete, was the transplanting of two blueberry plants. I am not sure how many years they had been in their former location, but as the years passed, I found that what was initially a partly shady location became deep shade as surrounding older trees continued to grow and block out the sun. Although they did produce a few berries, I know that in their new mostly sunny location they will thrive.

So, as I was slowly soaking my new transplants in with water from the hose, my phone rang. After the traditional “how-do-you-dos”, my friend launched into the reason for his call.

“Ed, there’s something wrong with my blue spruce. I think maybe it’s reverting to a green spruce or something. Maybe it’s got bugs – whataya think?”

“Are you saying that it’s turning green?” I reply, thinking to myself that it is winter, and it is common for the brighter blue color of summer to begin to fade as the waxy coating that covers the green needles (which give them the appearance of blue color) begins to erode away over time.

“Is the whole tree turning green or just a portion – is it truly green or just that the brighter blue has dulled?

“Hang on, I’ll look.” We continue with small talk while he walks out to his garden. “Ed, its just the bottom half of the tree, it’s going to die isn’t it?” his voice dropping off, I could sense his disappointment.

“No… I don’t think so, maybe I better come over and have a look.” I said, reassuringly.

The darker, discolored foliage in the lower left portion of this ‘Montgomery’ is caused by what folks in the nursery business call, “Tractor Blight” – it occurs with several passes of a tractor or trailers brushing up and rubbing away the white waxy coating on the needles. Fortunately, the new growth this spring with completely cover this up with fresh blue foliage. My friend’s tree suffered a little more damage than this, and I expect his tree to make a full recovery as well. His greater challenge may be retraining his daughter how to back out of the garage.

My blueberries had received a very good soak by this time and since I really wasn’t motivated to continue on with projects in my own garden after digging and transplanting two 4-5 foot blueberry plants, I cleaned up a bit and made my way over to see what my friend was so upset about.

I pulled up along the curb in front of my friend’s house, and there it was, a beautiful Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’ planted in a lovely bed of dwarf conifers which bordered along the inside curve of my friend’s large driveway. He greeted me just as I began to walk up the drive toward the tree. We

The bright sun and long days of spring and summer bring out the best, brightest lemon-yellow color of ‘Jantar’.

chatted while I had a good look all the way around the tree which had grown to the point where it was just at the edge of the pavement. I could see that a couple of the lowest branches were broken – or crushed. As I walked around the tree I found that the loss of blue color was limited to the driveway side of the tree.

I was just about to proclaim my diagnosis when one of the garage doors began to rise like a modern-day drawbridge, but rather than a horse-drawn carriage, my friend’s daughter backed her car out of the driveway, around the curve, sliding right up against the ‘Montgomery’ spruce, rubbing the lower portion of the small tree with the back quarter panel of her car, she then turned the car forward toward the street and sped off completely unaware of any affect she had on her father’s prized dwarf blue spruce. What we witnessed had apparently been going on for some time. Day after day of lightly brushing up against the lower portion of the tree began to rub off the waxy coating, revealing the true green color of the needles.

My friend and I turned and looked at each other, me with a restrained grin and my friend with his mouth dropped wide open.

“Case solved,” I said. “Shall we have tea, Watson?”

The funny thing is that my story does not end there. The very next morning I made a trip out to visit my friends at Iseli Nursery. As I approached my parking space, driving along the south side of the office, directly in front of me was a surprising phenomenon that I can’t remember experiencing to this degree before. There, before my eyes was a tree that was distinctly two-toned, split in half, right down the middle, from top to bottom.

Thuja occidentalis ‘Jantar’ is an exciting new plant from Poland that was discovered as a golden sport growing on the Emerald Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) a few years ago and is beginning to make its way into the American marketplace during that past year or so. This incredibly bright golden-yellow, tidy, narrow column is ordinarily brightly and evenly colored all the way around. This time of year, with our shorter days and less intense lower angle of the sun seems to have an effect on the intensity of color during the winter months. During the winter, ‘Jantar’s overall color deepens somewhat with hints of orange and bronze. What is fascinating is that the south side of the tree remains a very bright color, while the north side of the tree is duller, darker with slight hints of green. Approaching this tree from the east as I did, I could see a definite line where the bright color ends and the dimmer shades begin.

The south side of this ‘Jantar’ displays its bright amber winter color. The east side of the tree, you can see a distinct line delineating the bright sunny side from the darker north side of the tree. Finally, the north side of the tree just does not receive enough sunlight to stay brightly colored in our Pacific Northwest winter. Not to worry though, with the longer days and brighter sun coming, this ‘Jantar’ with be back to it totally bright yellow color soon!

So, the morale of my stories today are that many forces can affect the coloration of our conifers, from the effects of our natural world, to local wildlife – whatever the species.

Conifer Lover

4 thoughts on “The case of the two-toned conifers

  1. Rd, Great story. I think many people don’t realize that conifers can change color during the year. I love watching the Cryptomeria ‘Yoshino’ change from its bright green in the spring to its winter shade of army green tinged with purple. Who says conifers are boring??


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