Yes, I'm Conifer Crazy!

By Paul James

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about conifers, and it won’t be the last. My love affair with this amazing plant group began many years ago with a visit to Rich’s Foxwillow Pines Nursery in Woodstock, Illinois. Owner Rich Eyres took me on a tour of his place, and as he described the plants in his considerable (as in $12-million) inventory, his passion oozed like sap from a fresh-cut spruce. That passion has stuck with me ever since, and to this day that tour ranks as the most memorable of all my gardening experiences.

When I got back to Tulsa, I immediately set out to find as many conifers as I could, but was dismayed to discover that the choices at the time were limited. Sure, there were a few species of pine available, as well as some junipers and a spruce or two, but the more interesting and unusual selections I’d seen at Rich’s place were nowhere to be found.

Thankfully, however, all that has changed in recent years. Now you can find outstanding selections in a broad range of sizes, shapes, and colors. Common to this area are a number of excellent cedars, junipers, pines and spruces, all of which do well in Green Country. But here are some of my less familiar favorites that you really should consider.

Cedrus: There are only three species in the true cedar family – the Atlantic cedar, the Deodar cedar, and the cedar of Lebanon. Truth is, you can’t go wrong with any of them. Perhaps my favorite of the lot is the Deodar known as ‘Feelin’ Blue.’ It reaches a height of only three feet, but spreads to around five or six feet. There’s also a yellow equivalent called ‘Feelin Sunny.’ All cedars can handle full sun.

Cryptomeria: Sometimes called Japanese cedar (even though it isn’t), this is the most revered tree in Japan, where you’ll find it planted near shrines and temples, as well as in huge swaths of forest. ‘Black Dragon’ is an outstanding upright form, and ‘Globosa Nana’ is an excellent mounded shrub form. Both grow well here so long as they’re planted in a spot that gets afternoon shade.

Chamaecyparis: Also known as false cypress, this genus includes dozens of great choices, although my favorites are the Hinoki cypresses. They too are available in upright and shrub forms, as well as true dwarfs, such as the magnificent, golden-tinged ‘Verdoni.’ I’m also keen on the large and graceful weeping ‘Alaskan Cedar’ (which isn’t a cedar either). And then there’s ‘Fernspray’ (in green and gold), which is truly gorgeous. Again, afternoon shade is preferred.

Picea: The spruce family is vast, and while many are familiar with the blue forms, I’m actually partial to the green ones. I love the weepers, although I must admit a new upright form called ‘Hillside Upright’ has grabbed my attention, and is destined for a spot in my yard. Its lateral branches grow somewhat sparsely up the main trunk, so it’s easy to see through, unlike most spruces. A cool round form that produces oodles of cones is the relatively new ‘Pusch.’ Spruces love the sun.

Pinus: Oh, the pines. If I had to pick only one conifer, it would likely be a pine. The odd-shaped ‘Uncle Fogy’ is one of my favorites, although I’m guessing it’s not for everybody. The weeping white pines are spectacular as well. A new, round form of white pine called ‘Billow’ is gorgeous, and a new mugo named ‘Jakobsen’ is beyond beautiful. It looks like a ready-made bonsai. But if you’ve got room for a 20-foot tree form, check out the yellow-needled ‘Louie.’ It’s drop-dead gorgeous, and it holds its yellow color year round. Generally speaking, pines prefer full sun, but a bit of afternoon shade won’t hurt.

Last but not least, there are dozens of incredible miniature conifers available that look dynamite in the ground or in containers.  And many of them make excellent starter bonsais.

I could easily rattle off more choices, but I’m hoping these will spark your curiosity. Fair warning, however: You may become as addicted to conifers as I have, but then that’s hardly a bad thing.