The name "Conifer" comes from Latin and means, "to bear cones". Cones are found on conifers at a certain age but it is interesting to learn that several conifers bear berry-like fruit, which botanically are cones. These are the junipers (cedars), yews and plum-yews. Another feature of these three genera is the fact that the sexes are separate and only female plants produce the berry-like cones.
Conifers are usually evergreen, producing the well-known needles of various shapes, sizes and colors. But some conifers are deciduous, shedding their leaves in the fall. In this group are the larch or tamarack (Larix), dawn redwood (Metasequoia), golden larch (Pseudolarix) and bald cypress (Taxodium). There is a golden-needled form of Metasequoia that is being offered for the first time this year. That plant is at the top of my "want list". Among the conifers are some of the smallest, largest, and oldest living plants known to man. The coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), soaring an amazing 350 feet tall are found in California and Oregon are known to live over two thousand years. The bristle cone pines (Pinus aristata) of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at four thousand years old are usually considered the oldest living things. And there are miniature conifers that might reach two feet tall in 30 years!
There are more than 500 conifer species, distributed worldwide. They are invaluable for their timber and many other economic uses but gardeners value many species and cultivars for their year-round interest in the garden. The diversity of conifers for the landscape is endless. Nurserymen and other plant lovers around the world are devoted to the discovery and introduction of new selections that vary in size, rate of growth, form, color and texture. There has been special interest in the group of conifers known as "dwarf". The American Conifer Society has adopted as a guide, four size categories for conifers. Some plants will fit in one category but growing conditions vary tremendously and in one situation a plant might be very tiny while with more agreeable growing conditions the same plant might grow twice as fast. Size will vary due to the genetic makeup of a plant and cultural, climatic and regional factors.
Miniature conifers normally grow less than three inches a year. Dwarf conifers will grow at least three inches a year but less than six inches each year. Intermediate conifers will grow from six to twelve inches each year. Large conifers (often the species as found in nature) will usually grow more than twelve inches each year. Conifers are usually thought of as growing in the typical conical shape of Christmas trees but there are many other forms. Some conifers might be globose or rounded in general outline. A popular cultivar is Thuja occidentalis 'Globosa' (Globe American Arborvitae). I have an arborvitae cultivar named `Tiny Tim' that was planted in 1991. It is now eight inches tall and has never been pruned. Another bun-shaped plant is Chamaecyparis obtusa `Gold Sprite' (false-cypress). Our plant is twelve years old and is ten inches across and is about eight inches tall. It is difficult to choose a favorite plant but `Gold Sprite' is near the top of my list. Another miniature conifer in my garden is Picea rubens `Pocono', (Pocono red spruce). I bought this one in 1991 as a one-year graft. It grows about an inch each year.
The pendulous forms of conifers can be interesting. They are upright or mounding with varying degrees of weeping branches. My favorite in this group is Picea abies 'Pendula' (Weeping Norway Spruce). There are many cultivars of the Norway Spruce with this pendulous cultivar one of the most popular. The upright types might be very narrow, growing much taller than broad; these are fastigiate, columnar, narrow pyramids or narrow conical types. We are growing several rare cultivars of the Sciadopytis japonica (Japanese Umbrella-Pine) most becoming very tall and upright at maturity. Sid Waxman from the University of Connecticut introduced 'Wintergreen' Umbrella Pine a number of years ago, as the winter color is deeper green than other Japanese umbrella pines.
Then there are the prostrate conifers that might grow and creep flat on the ground. Pinus banksiana 'Schoodic' (Jack Pine) is a very rare form creeping flat on the ground. Another prostrate conifer is Tsuga canadensis 'Cole's Prostrate' (Canadian Hemlock). My plant is scarcely two inches tall and is four feet across at twenty years of age. It does best in a partially shaded situation. The spreaders grow wider than tall. Taxus baccata 'Repandens' (English Yew) is a spreading cultivar with deep green needles. This is a magnificent old time plant that could reach two feet tall and five or six feet wide in twenty years.
The irregular conifers have an erratic growth pattern. Picea pungens 'Pendula' (Colorado Spruce) might be very upright but could spread irregularly if left on its own without support. Height of this cultivar is determined by staking when the plant is young. Many gardeners prefer to shear and train their conifers. These are culturally altered into cones, pyramids, cubes and various other shapes. Often these forms are not pleasing to the eye, as the forms are very artificial in appearance. A good example is Taxus (Yew) which is often sheared and clipped. I sometimes say "Plant plastic bushes which can be purchased from any one of several department store outlets. No shearing required!"
Garden conifers come in a rainbow of year round colors that can be used with companion plants or in many garden situations. We recently planted a pine named `Chief Joseph' that has school bus yellow needles all winter but more typical green needles during the growing season. But getting back to the dwarf and miniature conifers. These groups excite much interest on the part of gardeners who often ask at the local garden center for plants that will be "low maintenance". This means "little or no pruning". The truth that gardeners should be aware of is that dwarfs and miniatures are slow growing but plants often might not be "dwarf" at maturity. So the rate of growth might be three inches a year which is true for the ubiquitous 'Alberta spruce' but this plant at maturity can be eight to twelve feet tall. So, even the slow-growing conifers do require maintenance, with pruning sometimes required to keep them at a desired size.
A few of my favorite dwarf and miniature conifers are: Chamaecyparis obtuse 'Gold Sprite' (False Cypress); Piece glauca 'Alberta Globe' (Alberta Globe White Spruce); Pinus strobus 'Soft Touch' (Soft Touch White Pine); Thuja occidentalis 'Tom Thumb' (Tom Thumb Arborvitae); Scidopitys japonica 'Richie's Cushion' (Richie's Cushion Umbrella-Pine); Abies koreana 'Silber Mavers' (Silver Mavers' Korean Fir).
Conifers are easy to grow in almost any well-drained garden soil. Miniature and dwarf forms seldom if ever require pruning. Insect and disease pests are seldom troublesome. Mites could be a problem on hemlocks and spruces if planted in a hot and dry situation, particularly when there is reflected sunshine. The hemlock wooly adelgid is a "new" pest of hemlock but I have not seen this insect on any of my hemlocks thus far. The cottony-like substance produced by the adelgid is easy to see and appears much like tiny 'Q-Tips' at the base of hemlock needles.
The American Conifer Society was founded sixteen years ago and has grown to a membership of fifteen hundred located in four regions. Members receive four issues of the Bulletin (magazine) full of conifer information, growing tips, articles on new or little-known cultivars and announcements that can be put to practical use in your own garden. Annual and Regional meetings are held each year. The auctions and plant sales at these meetings are popular and many conifers are sold to members. There is an annual seed exchange. For more information on conifers and the American Conifer Society write, call or e-mail Les Wyman, National membership chairman. 86 Tavern Waye, Hanson, MA 02341, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Les Wyman is the founder of Wyman Nursery, 135 Spring Street, Hanson, MA. He is now retired and collects conifers (200 cultivars); Rhododendrons (180 cultivars); Hollies, Azaleas and many rare and unusual plants. For twenty years he wrote "Grass Roots" a weekly gardening column which appeared in the Brockton Enterprise. He and his wife Marian were co-hosts of a gardening radio program on WATD, Marshfield, MA for five years