Federal coneheads

“Hey Ed! Did you see that one of the largest and most popular branches of the federal government have become coneheads?”

“Pardon me?”

“Yeah Ed, apparently the United States government has gone conehead!” laughed my friend. “You’ve got to check out their website.”

The conversation continued like this for a little while before I was able to get my friend to tell me exactly what he was talking about. As it turns out (and maybe many of you are already aware of this) one of the new Holiday designs for the United States Postal Service this year is a collection of four artist’s renderings featuring conifers.

I checked out the USPS website and found that they have holiday conifer stamps and other products available. The stamps feature nicely drawn details of the foliage and cones (or in the case of the Juniper, its berry-like structures). They also have very nicely produced postcards prestamped and with information about each conifer. I was very excited and impressed when I saw what they had to offer.

My wife and I were just talking a few days ago about our need to purchase more stamps for our holiday greeting cards this year. I hope she sees these great conifer stamps. Since they are Forever stamps, I think we should stock up now – then we’ll have plenty of conifer themed stamps to last us a very long time.

Check out the link above and you’ll find four conifers featured in the set including; Abies balsamea (Balsam Fir), Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red Cedar), Picea pungens (Colorado Spruce) and Pinus ponderosa (Ponderosa Pine).

Happy Holidays!

Conifer Lover

Waves of joy

This current surge of cold weather, and its resulting effect on my aching joints, has reminded me how important thick, dense groundcovers are in the garden. I’m aching just thinking about what a huge chore I would have to face every spring and summer if I didn’t utilize some of the all-natural, year-round, hardy and beautiful ground covering qualities of many exciting conifers. I have enough bare space in my garden that weeds still do manage to pose a challenge to me – but there is less of it every year, due in some part to my groundcovers.

When some folks think, coniferous groundcovers, they may envision low growing carpets of Juniper or Taxus – which are fine examples and can be very effective. Other great plants to cover your ground and ornament your space may include any of a great number of weeping conifers from, Pine and Spruce to Hemlocks and firs.

Pinus densiflora 'Pendula'
Like a waterfall, the foliage of Pinus densiflora ‘Pendula’ spills and flows over the ground creating a dense covering to help the fight against weeds.

Some great spreading and ground-covering conifers will, in and of themselves, make fantastic individual specimens, while happily covering bare ground and making less space available for weed seeds to germinate. Others may be much more subtle as they nonchalantly creep and crawl, filling in empty spaces, drape themselves over walls or around rocks, and generally provide a nice low addition of color and texture to the year-round interest of the conifer garden, all while reducing the gardener’s workload.

For example, one great choice is Pinus densiflora ‘Pendula’(Weeping Japanese Red Pine). This delicious bright green pine has long thin needles adorning reddish brown twigs and deeply textured mature bark. If allowed to simply grow naturally, it would build wave upon wave of undulating foliage that mounds and spreads covering as much space as the garden will allow. Most likely found in the independent garden center grafted at a couple feet off the ground or trained on a stake to three or more feet tall, ‘Pendula’ will quickly turn and begin it’s waterfall-like decent to the ground where it will spill and splash and fill in empty space with its lush foliar display. Staked to six or eight feet (or taller) the effect can be absolutely stunning. Keep in mind that the taller the plant is staked, the longer it will take many of the branches to reach the ground and begin to do their job.

Other great choices of ground covering conifers include:
Cedrus deodara ‘Prostrate Beauty’
Cepahalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’
Juniperus communis ‘Corielagan’
Juniperus conferta ‘Silver Mist’
Juniperus horizontalis ‘Golden Carpet’
Picea abies ‘Pendula’
Picea pungens ‘Procumbens’
Pinus strobus ‘Stony Brook’
Pinus sylvestris ‘Albyn Prostrata’
Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’

Conifer Lover

Christmas in September?

I don’t know if it is the sudden return to near winter type weather or what, but I’ve been thinking about the upcoming holidays. Can you believe that it’s just eleven weeks until Thanksgiving? I can – it feels quite a lot like November around here today. With the dark gray sky and constant drizzle, the sun doesn’t have a chance to warm things up today. I’m sitting near my woodstove, wondering if I’ve ever been tempted to light a fire this “early in the season” before –  it’s still summer!

As I sit here, trying to talk myself into believing that the sun will burn away these clouds and I’ll actually warm up this afternoon, my mind has been drifting to thoughts of Christmas trees and the wonderful wintery scent of conifers and cinnamon and peppermint. The winter holidays always bring a smile to my face and warmth to my heart, so why not imagine what my wife might like for her indoor decorating this year?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m more of a harvest my tree in the wild kind of guy while my wife prefers things to appear neat and tidy with a proper sense of order. I’m thinking about a tree that I’d like to find for my garden, but would make a great containerized live tree for our holidays. I’ll need to convince my wife that it will be a fun new tradition to set up and decorate our tree just a day or two before Christmas so that the live tree will have the best chance of survival after our holiday fun.

Pinus leucodermis 'Compact Gem'
‘Compact Gem’ – The perfect symmetrical Christmas Tree

Pinus leucodermis (heldrichi) ‘Compact Gem’ is the perfect tree to fit my wife’s expectations of tidiness while providing an abundance of wonderful holiday perfume for my pleasure. There’s just nothing like the scent of fresh conifer greens in the dead of winter to lift ones spirits.

‘Compact Gem’ is one of the nicest, most compact, neat and tidy, perfectly shaped pines available. Its green color is rich and bright – even in winter – so that it will bring cheer to both the landscape and the winter holiday indoor decorations. Its branches are spaced enough to allow ornaments to hang and yet dense enough to hide the wires of the lights you might like to string around the tree.

In the landscape, ‘Compact Gem’ makes a stately specimen with perfect symmetrical form. Hardy to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, even my friends in Zone 5 will be able to enjoy this one. If you need a hardy, somewhat formal looking screen, ‘Compact Gem’ should work well growing up to 12” per year while keeping its compact tidy appearance.

Yes, ‘Compact Gem’ is the tree for me this year. If I were you, I’d get to my favorite garden center early and have them special order one. Then I’d let them hang on to it as long as possible before bringing it home. Check out my list of suggestions for a successful live Christmas tree experience in my past blog, “Weal kwissmas twees” while I cross my fingers and hope for a return to at least a couple more weeks of summer.

Conifer Lover

Variegated conifers are cool!

My wife and I have varying tastes in garden plants. She grew up enjoying annual flowers, bulbs, perennials and flowering shrubs. I, of course, prefer conifers. One thing that we both definitely agree on is our love of variegated plants. I even tolerate a few plants that I otherwise would have no interest in if their foliage were not variegated.

Generally, variegation refers to variety or variation of color. One great example of a common plant seen in gardens and as houseplants almost anywhere is Coleus. Who doesn’t love the brightly multi-colored leaves of the Coleus plant? Another of our favorites is Hosta. Many Hosta have large leaves that appear to have been brushed with two or three colors of watercolor paints. Happily, some of the coolest conifers also have variegated foliage.

Sometimes conifers will push their new spring growth of one color, like red or yellow, and then mature to their “normal” color of green or blue. Others will push their new growth a bright golden yellow and as the older foliage becomes shaded by the new, it can darken to green giving the overall plant a variegated appearance. Still others will have green or bluish needles on one side and appear silver or white on the underside due to a waxy coating, again giving the plant a variegated appearance. Beautiful as all these things are, this is not the variegation of which I am referring today.

Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa Variegata'
Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa Variegata'

Today I will share with you some of the most striking variegated conifers whose foliage is multi-colored due to interesting patterns of pigment (or perhaps more accurately, lack of pigment). First on the list is a fairly slow growing small tree, Juniperus chinenesis ‘Torulosa Variegata’ or the Variegated Hollywood Juniper. You might think of this as an irregularly shaped upright green conifer with splashes of yellow all over the foliage. Sometimes entire twigs of new growth will be yellow, other branches will have a mix of yellow and green in varying quantities giving the whole tree a very unique appeal.

Pinus parviflora 'Ogon janome'
Pinus parviflora 'Ogon janome'

Another great example of yellow variegation in a conifer is Pinus parviflora ‘Ogon janome’ with its bands of buttery yellow variegation on its green needles. From a distance, the variegation is difficult to discern. One may perceive that this Japanese White Pine is a little more yellow than other nearby plants in the garden. Closer inspection will reveal a wonderful variegation on each and every needle providing this striking effect.

Tsuga canadensis 'Albospica'
Tsuga canadensis 'Albospica'

In most gardens, the two previous trees will perform their best in full sun, although ‘Ogon janome’ may enjoy light shade in the afternoon to protect it from the intense summer sun. The final conifer on today’s list is actually quite tolerant of shade. Tsuga canadensis ‘Albospica’ loves moist, rich, well drained soil and thrives in filtered sun to bright shade. Its new foliage will emerge nearly pure white with some tell-tale signs of green showing. As the foliage ages, its chlorophyll production will kick in and eventually become dark green. The contrast between the white new growth and the dark green mature foliage is absolutely stunning. ‘Albospica’ can become quite a large and open grower, so I like to keep mine pruned which encourages a fuller habit and more of the white new foliage to brighten its home on the north side of my house. I’ve seen a low hedge of ‘Albospica’ that has been regularly sheared and kept to a height of about four feet for many years.

Tsuga canadensis 'Albospica' - cone
Even the cones of 'Albospica' are variegated - that's cool!

These are just a very few of the many selections of conifers available with variegated foliage. I believe that no matter where you live, you will be able to find at least one variegated conifer that will thrive in your area. Keep an eye out for them the next time you visit your favorite independent garden center.

Conifer Lover

Ever eat a spruce tree?

Remember Euell Gibbons? He became nationally famous back in the mid-70’s while promoting Grape Nuts cereal with his quote, “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.”

I had discovered Euell a couple of years prior to that when I came across his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus at the library. What captured me – beyond the topic of wild foods – was the whimsical style of his writing. He made foraging for, cooking, and eating wild foods, sound like fun.

Care for a cup of tea?
Care for a cup of tea?

I had learned about some wild foods, including pines, while in the Boy Scouts. While I never delved into the experience as deeply as Mr. Gibbons may have liked, I have certainly held onto my interest in natural foods. Recently I discovered some of the food aspects of one of my favorite genera of conifer, the spruce.

Did you know that the young shoots of spruce are high in vitamin C and that they can be brewed into a refreshing tea? Neither did I. In fact, according to wikipedia, the explorer “Captain Cook would have both malt and sugar-based spruce beer made during his sea voyages in order to prevent scurvy in his crew.” As it turns out, spruce beer was common in both the colonial United States and eastern Canada. There is still a spruce beer soft drink available in some parts of Canada today.

The majestic spruce has also been used medicinally for the treatment of respiratory diseases including tuberculosis and the leaves and gum of the tree have been used in the treatment of cancer. Other uses include treatment for skin complaints and to sooth a cough.

Not only can you fill your garden with colorful spruce trees of assorted shapes and sizes; with some research you might even be able to fill your medicine cabinet with remedies made from those same trees.

Conifer Lover