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

Conifer diversity

Since my last post, the rain slowed to a drizzle, became intermittent showers and finally stopped altogether. We then had nearly 48 hours of partially sunny, warmer and dry weather. As I write this, I can hear the wind pounding the pouring rain against the nearby window. As promised last time, I have a great list of conifers that will tolerate both very wet and very dry conditions.

I called one of my mid-west friends the other day and we had a long conversation on the topic. Then, much to my surprise, this morning I received the following email. My good friend has put such a great list together that I see no reason to change a thing. He has listed some excellent conifers for any garden and has grouped them by their tolerance for various levels of soil moisture. I think you’ll find this information extremely valuable.

“Although almost all conifers prefer the ‘perfect’ soil – moist well-drained loam – many will tolerate wet or dry soils.  Most Abies and Tsuga are not very tolerant of extremes in wet or dry soils.

“A few conifers can tolerate very wet, almost bog-like soils.  Probably the most tolerant of wet soils are Taxodium varieties such as ‘Cascade Falls’ and ‘Peve Yellow’.  Also, Thuja occidentalis varieties such as ‘Degroots Spire’, ‘Hetz Wintergreen’, ‘Holmstrup’, ‘Rushmore’, and ‘Smaragd’ will tolerate wet soils.  Thuja plicata varieties like ‘Canadian Gold’ and ‘Virescens’ are also tolerant of very wet soils.  Taxodium and Thuja are frequently found in boggy or swampy locations in their native habitats.  Although these conifers may actually prefer well-drained soils, they can survive in swampy areas where they can out compete other species.

Conifer Garden
No matter what your gardening challenge, there is very likely a conifer that will at least tolerate, if not thrive in, your gardening situation.

“Other conifers will tolerate moderately wet soils, such as those found in a swale that dries out, or in a low area through which rain runoff flows but does drain.  In other words, areas that can be wet, but that do eventually drain and don’t hold standing water or hold water just below the surface of the soil.  Some of the best conifers for this kind of situation are various spruces.  Some examples are Picea abies ‘Pendula Major’, Picea glauca ‘Pendula’, Picea mariana ‘Golden’, Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’, Picea pungens ‘Hoopsii’, and Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’.  In nature, Picea glauca and Picea pungens are frequently found at the edge of streams or on lake shores.  Surprisingly, Picea glauca and Picea pungens will also tolerate fairly dry locations.  Most Larix species prefer ample moisture, and would also be a good choice for these moist, but not boggy situations.  Examples are Larix decidua ‘Horstmann’s Recurva’ and Larix sibirica ‘Conica’.  Larix laricina is frequently found in swampy locations, but most Larix species don’t like a swamp.

“To the other extreme, some conifers will perform well in very dry situations.  Again, most of these plants would prefer a moderately moist, but well-drained soil if given a choice, but will tolerate dryness.  Some Junipers are excellent choices for dry, sandy or rocky soils.  Examples are Juniperus communis ‘Effusa’ and ‘Green Carpet’, and ‘Kalebab’.  Juniperus horizontalis is also very tolerant of dry soils.  Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Pygmy’, and ‘Limeglow’™ are possible choices.  Many pines are also good choices for sandy, very well-drained, and dry soils, especially two and three needle pines.  Some good choices for dry soils are Pinus banksiana ‘Uncle Fogy’, Pinus leucodermis ‘Emerald Arrow’, and Pinus leucodermis ‘Mint Truffle’, Pinus mugo ‘Big Tuna’, ‘Slowmound’, and Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’ and ‘Sherwood Compact’, as well as Pinus nigra ‘Helga’ and Pinus sylvestris ‘Glauca Nana’.

“Keep in mind that most of these conifers that are tolerant of dry situations should be kept adequately moist until they are well established.  They should also be given supplemental water in times of extreme drought.  Many five needle pines such as Pinus strobus, although they prefer very well-drained and even sandy soils, actually are not as tolerant of extremely dry areas.  Most plants that are tolerant of very dry soils are also tolerant of alkaline soils.”

Until next time, I’ll be hoping for sunshine, in my garden and yours.

Conifer Lover

Needle puddles

It happened again.

One of my neighbors spotted me pulling some of the fallen needles trapped among the branches of my Pinus strobus ‘Macopin’ and ran over to my garden.

“Ed – are your pines dying too?” he shouted with a look of horror on his face. “My pines are dying Ed, they’re all sick and dying!”

“Hold on there, buckaroo,” I told him, “I think you’re getting all worked up over nothing.”

“No, yours are doing it too. Look – I can see needle puddles all over your garden! They’ve got some kind of virus or something, don’t they! And don’t try to tell me that they are those weird deciduous conifers you talk about.”

It was a challenge, but I was able to calm my friend down after a few minutes.

Pinus strobus 'Macopin'
The inner branches of this young Pinus strobus ‘Macopin’ have shed their needles. The two most recent years growth retain their needles. Next year, the cycle will repeat.

I explained to him that all conifers drop their foliage. The difference is that some woody plants drop their foliage after just one season of growth (deciduous trees and shrubs) and others may retain their foliage for two or three years or even up to twenty (evergreens). This annual needle drop is probably most evident on pines because they tend to have very long needles making it much more noticable when they drop.

Some open growing pines will drop their older needles, and having a less crowded branch work will leave a very noticable puddle of needles at their base. Others, like the P.s. ‘Macopin’ I was cleaning out when my neighbor arrived, have a more compact form and crowded branching pattern causing the old needles to collect in clumps here and there around the tree. A good winter wind can whisk those needles away, but sometimes I prefer to reach in with my hands or a small leaf rake to pull the needles out. Then I just add them to the compost pile.

I feel confident that this particular neighbor – though somewhat timid about investing in a collection of conifers for his garden – the more he learns, the more he will begin to relax and enjoy the four seasons of color and texture that conifers provide in the garden.

Conifer Lover

Are you a Conehead?

Abies koreana Aurea
Abies koreana ‘Aurea’

I have considered myself a Conehead for many years now, and yet, I don’t claim to come from France. I remember the first time I saw the Conehead sketch on Saturday Night Live back in the late 1970s. I told my friends back then that I was a true Conehead, unlike those on the TV. One of my friends mentioned that he had always thought that I was from another planet referring, I presume,  to my non-conformist wardrobe choices and lack of interest in the disco scene of the day.

Yes, even back in the late ’70s’ I was a Conehead – a conifer lover.  I love the year-round color that conifers can provide with their fantastic and sometimes seasonally changing foliage color, but quite often, it is the cones themselves that provide the color and seasonal interest.

Picea orientalis Aureospicata
Picea orientalis ‘Aureospicata’

My favorites begin as very colorful red or purple “buds” that grow  into symmetrically balanced spirals of winged pockets designed to  protect the seed as it develops and then allows the seed to launch into the wind or be relocated by birds or other wildlife at maturity.

Very colorful cones may be discovered growing on some cultivars of Abies koreana (Korean Fir), Picea abies (Norway Spruce), Picea orientalis (Oriental Spruce), Pinus parviflora (Japanese White Pine) or Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas Fir). These colorful cones can add excitement and interest to the spring and early summer garden. The detail in these young cones can be stunning, often only visible with a magnifying glass or a good macro lens on the  camera.

Pseudotsuga menziesii Blue
Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Blue’

As the cones continue to grow and mature through the summer months, their color may change and become darker or even tinged with a different hue. Most will begin to ooze resin which can actually sparkle in the early morning or late afternoon sunlight. At maturity, many cones will have turned brown and the seed-holding pockets will have spread and opened allowing the seeds to escape. The larger dried cones are what we often see used decoratively in flower arrangements or in wreathes and swags during the winter holidays.

Cones add to the multi-seasonal appeal of conifers and are one of the reasons many gardeners consider themselves Coneheads all over the world.

Conifer Lover

As always, thanks to my friends at Iseli Nursery for the photo links.

Of candles and new beginnings

As children, we look forward to every birthday. That one day in the year when we become the focus of attention of our family and friends. Each year, with great anticipation and excitement, we draw in a deep breath and blow with fierce determination to extinguish the candles burning atop the cake.

Birthday candles bring back many memories of years past. They also cause me to think of the days ahead – the new things to learn and experience, the new friends to make and the new plants for my garden. 

Conifer candles have a similar effect on me. 

Pinus thunbergii Thunderhead candles emerge in spring
Pinus thunbergii 'Thunderhead' candles emerge in spring

Have you ever noticed when Pines begin their new push of growth in spring? You will begin to see long narrow “candles” emerging out of the terminal ends of the main trunk and branches. Those tight candles will elongate, sometimes resin coated, sometimes with a papery wrap or tightly woven silky threads, growing and stretching until the needles begin to unfold creating the foliage for the current season. The showy candles on the pines in my garden are perhaps the first of the conifers to wake up in spring creating an early show as the daffodils and tulips begin to fade.

Keep an eye on your pines this spring and watch for the candles to emerge. Maybe you too will catch a happy memory from your childhood or ponder what life may have for you in the coming months.

Conifer Lover