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"The Fascinating World of Conifers," by the Whistling Gardener

I want to introduce you to a few more conifers that I find to be real gems to add to our landscapes. But before launching into some specific varieties of interest, my botanical nerdiness requires me to share what I consider to be truly fascinating facts about this group we refer to as conifers or “cone bearing” plants.
Amersfort Yew. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

As promised a few weeks ago, I want to introduce you to a few more conifers that I find to be real gems to add to our landscapes. But before launching into some specific varieties of interest, my botanical nerdiness requires me to share what I consider to be truly fascinating facts about this group we refer to as conifers or “cone bearing” plants.

Conifers belong to a group botanists call Gymnosperms. These are relatively primitive plants dating back approximately 250 million years ago. The term “gymnosperm” is Greek and means naked seed.  

Unlike an apple where the seeds are contained inside the fruit, seeds of gymnosperms are exposed to the open - like those in a pinecone that are lodged down in the scales and can be scattered simply by wind. Gymnosperms don’t flower like we think of with other plants, which is an indication of their more primitive nature.

I think the other interesting thing about conifers is the shape of their leaves. Rather than a broad leaf, like an oak or maple, the leaves of conifers are rolled or compressed into needles or scales.  Along with a waxy coating, this process enables them to withstand harsh environmental conditions. It is also what gives them their unusual texture in the landscape.

It always boggles my mind to think of the variety of evergreens available to us here in the northwest. In our nursery alone, we offer 25 different genera and close to 300 individual varieties.  

Some of these grow three feet a year up to 40 to 60 feet tall and make great privacy screens for natural areas, or they can be sheared into formal hedges and maintained at a six-foot height. 

Others may be ground huggers, growing only horizontally and reaching four to six inches tall at most, lending themselves as groundcovers. And of course, the vast majority fall somewhere in-between these two extremes, which makes them perfect candidates for our landscapes. Here are a few that I personally like…

“Moon Frost” Hemlock — Although we have a native hemlock in the northwest, most of the interesting cultivars found in the industry are from the eastern or Canadian hemlock group. “Sergeant’s Weeping” is an old standard that will cascade nicely over a rockery and “Gentsch White” with its variegated foliage will brighten up a shady area, but “Moon Frost” is by far my favorite when it comes to hemlocks.  

Our supplier Iseli Nursery out of Oregon describes it as follows: “…bright, white, new growth with older, inner foliage that retains a light tone combine for a distinctly white appearance. In winter it takes on a blush of pink. A compact globe when young, ‘Moon Frost’ broadens and increases its growth rate with age, but remains a reliably small, dwarf plant.”

Amersfort” Yew — There are lots of wonderful yews on the market today, from tightly upright-growing forms (we use the term fastigiate in the trade) to more horizontal ones, but nothing quite compares to the bizarre growth habit of “Amersfort.”

This variety sports small, more rounded leaves which are arranged in an almost dreadlock manner giving it a most unusual textural quality. The branches arch out in an irregular fashion, which make it a perfect candidate for a focal point in the garden. You can’t help but be drawn to this plant.

Whipcord” Cedar — This highly unusual plant is a sport of our native western red cedar, but you would never know it by looking at it. You might think of “Cousin It” when you see this little guy.  

Again, Iseli Nursery describes it accordingly: “The unusual foliage on this low, mop-head-like plant consists of long, thick, glossy tendrils that suggest Independence Day fireworks. ‘Whipcord’ has many branches that seem to explode upward and send sparks cascading in all directions ultimately maturing at around four by four.”  

Grafted onto a two-foot standard understock, this plant becomes an instant conversation piece in the landscape.

“Little Champion” Cryptomeria — Japanese cedars are a diverse group of evergreens native to Japan and southern China, that are very well suited to our northwest climate.

Our website describes this one as follows: “'Little Champion’ is a delightful dwarf with many curvy branchlets coated with layers of tightly held, awl-like needles that make them look like woven rope. In winter, the sparkling green foliage may take on handsome bronzy highlights, especially the tips. Matures in ten years to only two by two.”

These four selections are literally the tip of the iceberg when it comes to conifers that we can grow in the northwest.  Take a minute this month to check them out and you will be amazed at the immense range of colors and forms. You won’t be disappointed.  

Stay safe and keep on gardening!

Sunnyside will be hosting our last class of the year, “Houseplants = Healthy Air,” on Saturday, November 14, 2020, at 10:00 am. For more information or to sign up, visit www.sunnysidenursery.net/classes.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA, and can be reached at sunnysidenursery@msn.com.

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