Of mutants and pixies

A family of pixies has moved into my garden. It’s true, but perhaps not quite what you might be thinking.

Last time I talked about two miniature forms of the Dwarf Alberta Spruce. I gave a brief explanation of the horticultural terms, Sport, Reversion and Witches’ Broom, all referring to mutations – new or different growth forms –  emerging from their respective parent plants. This time I’ll present for you the family tree of an exciting group of dwarf and miniature conifers originating from the White Spruce (Picea glauca).

We learned last time that Picea glauca ‘Conica’ was discovered near the beginning of the 20th century in Alberta, Canada. This new form of Picea glauca is a dwarf version of the White Spruce with a greatly reduced growth rate and nice conical shape. Many new cultivars have been discovered as mutated growth emanating from a small percentage of the millions and millions of Dwarf Alberta Spruce clones growing around the world.

Picea glauca Pixie
Picea glauca ‘Pixie’

One of those mutations was propagated and named ‘Pixie’ for its miniature growth rate and tiny conical habit. One day at Iseli Nursery, an employee discovered that one, in a crop of ‘Pixie,’ had a variegated sport. In fact, by the time the employee made this discovery, the sport had become virtually the entire small plant. This mutation was evaluated for a number of years, found to hold true to its distinctive characteristic and became the “mother” plant for a new cultivar which became known as, ‘Pixie Dust’.

Picea glauca Pixie Dust
Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’

‘Pixie Dust’ is even a little slower growing than ‘Pixie’ with the same nice miniature conical habit. What makes it particularly exciting is that mid-way through the growing season, it appears to be sprinkled with golden pixie dust with its golden colored second push of new foliage. Since not all the buds push at the same time, and since the golden color fades to rich green, ‘Pixie Dust’ makes me think of gold dust shimmering in the sunlight (in very slow motion).

Picea glauca Pixie Dust Sport #1
Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’ Sport #1

But the story doesn’t end there. A sport was discovered growing on a ‘Pixie Dust’ with faster growth but still within the dwarf growth range. This new sport has been propagated and is being evaluated at Iseli Nursery today. So far it is growing into a larger conically shaped plant with annual growth of 3 to 4 inches. Currently it is pushing its second flush and shows the same golden color as its parent.

So, we begin with a large forest tree that produces a dwarf cone shaped, highly popular cultivar, which itself produces a great many new cultivars through the magic of mutation. One of those mutations produces its own new cultivar, which at this time has also produced an exciting new form worthy of further evaluation.

Did you follow all that? Don’t worry, just enjoy the fantastic new conifers being introduced at your local fine garden centers and leave all the complicated science to the experts!

Conifer Lover

Nuggets of pure gold

My miniature container gardens have really come to life the past few weeks. All the dwarf and miniature conifers are pushing their new growth and the companion succulents and mini-heathers are performing admirably. Two of the hot spots in my containers right now are both miniature Hinoki Cypress cultivars selected for their bright gold foliage color and extremely slow growth rates.

Chamaecyparis obtusa Golden Sprite
Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Golden Sprite'

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Golden Sprite’ has been a favorite of mine for many years. This little nugget of gold has tiny foliage that slowly grows into an irregularly shaped mound that is broader than tall. At fifteen years old, my oldest specimen is nearly 10 inches across and approximately seven inches tall. The foliage is so tight that I can barely stick a finger into this plant. I love its unusual mounded shape – this one really has a lot of character.

Chamaecyparis obtusa Butter Ball
Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Butter Ball'

Another golden nugget of conifer joy is Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Butter Ball’. At first glance, you might think it’s identical to ‘Golden Sprite’, but upon closer inspection you’ll find that it is a more open grower giving it a chance to “breathe” a little bit. The tiny foliage is more a lemon-yellow color and it is noticeably looser than that of ‘Golden Sprite’ suggesting a slightly faster growth rate. Mine is still quite young, and it will have many more years in its current container before I will need to become concerned with transplanting it into the garden.

Both these little golden nuggets are valuable additions to my container garden. As they mature, I look forward to placing them in my rock garden (which will give me an excuse to purchase a couple more small ones to re-plant into containers.)

Conifer Lover

A few simple words

I recently had an opportunity to show off my garden to a few friends that are relatively new to the world of conifers. They exhibited all the responses that I have seen time and again for years. I find it quite amusing to hear educated people reduce their vocabulary to just a few one or two syllable words.

“Wow!” or its variant, “Oh, wow!”


And the very popular, “Ooooooo.”

Frequently as I give tours of my garden, people are at first amazed, and then very curious. Probably the single most asked question is, “How big will it get?”

How big will it get? An excellent question that seems to be increasingly confusing as more and more growers market their products. Some growers list basic information such as, “Grows to 25 feet” or “Matures at 25 feet.” Some growers provide an annual growth rate and a 10 or 20 year size. These are the most useful because conifers will never get to a certain height and just stop growing. If you look at the annual growth rate and the current size of the plant, you can make a fairly accurate guess on how old the specimen is now. With simple math skills, you may determine the approximate size of the plant in another 10, 20 or 50 years.

Abies lasiocarpa 'Duflon'

Since one man’s’ dwarf conifer might be another’s miniature, The American Conifer Society has adopted a very useful guide to help conifer enthusiasts determine how their plant may grow by setting up four categories:

Miniature = less than one inch per year
Dwarf = one to six inches per year
Intermediate = six to twelve inches per year
Large = Greater than twelve inches per year

A large growing conifer, such as the Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), a native forest tree in the Pacific Northwest, could be expected to grow more than 12 inches per year. (I’ve seen young trees put on two to three feet of growth in one year.)  In contrast, the dwarf cultivar, Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Little Jon’ grows approximately 3 to 5 inches per year. The native Douglas Fir will be well over 25 feet tall on its 20th birthday compared with the ‘Little Jon’ that will grow to three to five feet tall in the same time. Comparatively, the miniature Abies lasiocarpa ‘Duflon’ will only add one to two centimeters of annual growth making it well under one foot in the same 20 years.

If you have ever wondered why growth rates can be so varied for a specific cultivar, you must keep in mind that physical environments related to geographical location can greatly affect the listed annual growth rates. The grower in Oregon in near perfect conditions with ample water, great soil and mild temperatures is sure to see different growth rates than the gardeners in Syracuse, New York, Atlanta, Georgia or Minneapolis, Minnesota. In Oregon, the Douglas Fir enjoys one or two feet of growth per year while in Wisconsin it may grow 6 to 12 inches per year.

Conifers truly are amazing.

Conifer Lover

Thanks to my friends at Iseli Nursery for the photo link!

Fanciful garden gems

I’ve just been digging through some catalogs both online and in print, and I am getting pumped up and ready to plant some new dwarf and miniature conifers in my garden. There is no doubt that I love the large and stately trees that fill our forests and parks, but my special love is for the dwarfs and miniatures. Honestly, what’s not to love about these delightfully small, low maintenance, colorful and hardy conifers?

A simple Patio Garden using dwarf conifers and other exciting plants.

My rock garden area is getting full, and the tiny plants that I intend to acquire will be too small for other open areas in my garden, so I am going to focus on containers for these fanciful little garden gems. Miniature conifers are perfect with the current trend in container and patio gardens. Once I decide whether I’d like a more formal looking patio garden using manufactured ceramic or terracotta pots, or a rustic look created with handmade hypertufa troughs, my next task will be deciding on which of the wonderful miniature conifers to include in the design.

Hypertufa trough garden using dwarf conifers and other miniature or creeping plants.

I’ve compiled a list of miniature or dwarf forms for my new containers. In a few years when some of the faster growing cultivars are getting too large, I’ll find a place for them in my garden. In the mean time, these little beauties will add a lot to my patio space.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Butter Ball’
Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Cumulus’
Picea abies ‘Tompa’
Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’
Pinus leucodermis ‘Smidtii’
Pinus strobus ‘Sea Urchin’
Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Tuffet’
Tsuga canadensis ‘Betty Rose’

Come on SPRING!

Conifer Lover

Thanks to Iseli Nursery for the photo links!

My Dear ‘Nana’

I first became interested in dwarf conifers back in the early 1970’s. In those days, I was working with a landscaper primarily doing yard and garden care. I had the opportunity to mow lawns and pull weeds in some of the finest private gardens in my area. That was when I was introduced to my first love. She was a beauty, short for her age and bigger around than tall with lovely dark green, tightly held foliage. I’m going to guess that she was nearly 30 years old at the time and truly a sight to behold. My boss called her “Dwarf Hinoki,” but I came to know her as ‘Nana.’

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana'

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana’ was my first dwarf conifer love and that admiration has lasted all these years. She’s so soft and has a wonderful rich dark green color all year long. In fact, I’ve noticed as it has gotten colder over the past couple of weeks and some conifers have bronzed or become yellowish, ‘Nana’ seems to get darker and darker. In spring, as her new growth begins, she’ll brighten to fresh grass green and darken as the new foliage matures through the season.

‘Nana’ is one of the true miniature conifers that is well suited to rock gardens and container gardens of all kinds. Acquired when small, ‘Nana’ will be perfect for a trough garden for several years. When she outgrows that space, she may be easily transplanted to a container all her own or into the landscape. She’ll just need well drained soil and a sunny location.

My oldest specimen has a prominent place in my front garden, and I’ve recently purchased a second little plant in a four inch pot. I’m not sure exactly where this little beauty will go, but I couldn’t resist her during my last visit to the garden center in November!

Conifer Lover