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With different forms and textures, colorful conifers create year-round drama in the landscape.

Sprucing Up the Landscape

American Nurseryman
January 15, 1999

Text and photos by Richard and Susan Eyre

Landscaping is a great way for landscape designers to express themselves in a creative manner and present that art to the world around them. And like any work of art, selecting the right color is essential. Garden conifers provide a diverse palette of colors, forms and textures to chose from all year. They are the frame of the garden. Conifers enable the designer to create more than just a landscape – they can create a masterpiece.

Garden conifers display a rainbow of colors from shades of green, yellow and orange to blue and purple. The various sizes and shapes allow designers to manipulate how much of this color they want to add to the landscape, while seasonal changes help create unique pictures every month. Some conifers even have subtle flowers or colorful cones that bring natural ornamentation to the garden.

Garden conifers are ideal as color foundation because they are low-maintenance plants and offer a wide range of forms as well. Most are hardy between zones 3 and 5 and require full sun to partial shade. Once established, these forms do not need pruning or fertilizing. Let's take a look at some of the colors these wonderful plants have to offer.

Yellow. Just as the brilliant sun accents a blue sky, yellow conifers brighten a garden. By speckling the landscape with gold or building a prominent glowing mass, designers can bring sunshine to a landscape even on a cloudy day. The stunning yellows and interesting textures of Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Golden Mop' ('Golden Mop' sawaracypress), C.pisifera 'Filifera Aurea Nana' (dwarf golden threadbranch cypress) and C.pisifera 'Sungold' ('Sungold' false cypress), for example, create a wonderful landscape accent. The yellow foliage of Tsuga canadensis 'Golden Splendor' ('Golden Splendor' Canadian hemlock) can also bring the perfect accent to the garden, especially when an upright form is needed.


Juniperus horizontalis 'Mother Lode' makes a good golden groundcover.

The golden beauties Thuja occidentalis 'Sunkist' ('Sunkist' arborvitae) and T.occidentalis 'Yellow Ribbon' ('Yellow Ribbon' American arborvitae) are good performers with pyramidal habits. They are excellent accent plants and contrast nicely with blue specimens. For a more diminutive, yellow, vertical accent, Juniperus communis 'Gold Cone' ('Gold Cone' juniper) is excellent. J.×media 'Daub's Frosted' ('Daub's Frosted' juniper) and J.horizontalis 'Mother Lode' ('Mother Lode' juniper; see photo to the right) make good golden groundcovers. Try J.chinensis 'Saybrook Gold' ('Saybrook Gold' juniper) for a low, compact spreader, or select the semidwarf mounding Pinus mugo 'Aurea' (golden mugo pine) as a showy, yellow foundation plant.

Blue. Large, steel blue conifers add interesting color and foliage to greenery and are best used as screens or windbreaks. These conifers, such as Picea pungens 'Hoopsii' ('Hoopsii' Colorado spruce), are best planted in irregular triangles using more ornamental forms in the foreground (see photo below). Other favorite large, steel blue conifers include P.pungens 'Thomsen' ('Thomsen'Colorado spruce)and P.pungens 'Glauca Pendula' (blue weeping Colorado spruce).


Favorite large, steel blue cultivars include Picea pungens 'Hoopsii'.

For silver-blue color, try Abies concolor 'Candicans' ('Candicans' white fir; photo, above). A.lasiocarpa var. arizonica (cork fir) and A.lasiocarpa 'Glauca Compacta' (compact blue alpine fir) also offer a nice silver-blue effect, although their needles are more soft blue. These three fir trees are ideal for the landscape and have outstanding texture. Pinus sylvestris 'Watereri' ('Watereri' Scotch pine) and P.sylvestris 'Glauca Nana' (dwarf blue Scotch pine) are blue-green and develop superior orange bark.

Add some height with the narrow, blue wonder Picea pungens 'Fastigiata' ('Fastigiata' Colorado spruce). Or for a blue, slow-growing miniature juniper, we recommend Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star' ('Blue Star' juniper). A good pyramidal form to try is Picea pungens 'Montgomery' ('Montgomery' Colorado spruce). For a true blue, globe conifer, turn to P.pungens 'Glauca Globosa' (dwarf globe blue spruce). Pinus strobus 'Blue Shag' ('Blue Shag' white pine) is another globe conifer that is more blue-green.

Where high drama is required in the garden, consider pendulous or weeping conifers. Any weeping tree will attain the height you want by staking. After the desired height is reached, all growth is usually downward. A pendulous tree that is never staked becomes a groundcover. For a good pendulous tree, try Picea pungens 'Glauca Pendula' or the blue-green Chamaecyparisnootkatensis 'Green Arrow' ('Green Arrow' Alaskan cedar)

Green. Although bright colors always add a nice accent to the landscape, sometimes the right touch of green creates the perfect look. Two good pyramidal forms with nice green color are Picea abies 'Clanbrassiliana Stricta' (dwarf 'Clanbrassiliana Stricta' spruce) and P.abies 'Compacta Asselyn' ('Compacta Asselyn' Norway spruce). Tsuga canadensis 'Jervis' ('Jervis' Canadian hemlock) also has a lovely shade ofgreen, as well as an irregular pyramidal form. When a touch of dark green is needed, try T.canadensis 'Lewis' ('Lewis' dwarf Canadian hemlock) or T.canadensis 'Geneva' ('Geneva' Canadian hemlock). These pyramidal forms are perfect for areas with partial shade.


For shadier locations, the green T.canadensis 'Bennett' is a good candidate.

Two green mounding selections to try include Pinus nigra 'Hornibrookiana' ('Hornibrookiana' dwarf Austrian pine), which features the bonus of outstanding white buds, and Picea abies 'Mucronata' (dwarf 'Mucronata' spruce), which has large, brown buds. Smaller mounds include Pinus mugo 'Teeny' ('Teeny' mountain pine) or P.mugo 'Sherwood Compact' ('Sherwood Compact' mountain pine), a dark green conifer that may grow up to 1 inch to 2 inches per year during its first 10 years. For shadier locations, the bright green Tsuga canaden-sis 'Jeddeloh' ('Jeddeloh 'Canadian hemlock), green T.canadensis 'Bennett' ('Bennett' Canadian hemlock; see photo on the right) and green T.canadensis 'Gracilis' ('Gracilis' Canadian hemlock) are good candidates. These conifers grow up to 3 feet tall in 10 years.

When only a controlled hint of color is desired, green, compact forms are available, such as Picea abies 'Pumila' (dwarf 'Pumila' spruce) or P.abies 'Repens' (dwarf 'Repens' spruce). If globe conifers are preferred, Pinus strobus 'Horsford' ('Horsford' white pine) works well.

Fastigiate or columnar trees add height to a garden but leave a narrow footprint. Picea abies 'Cupressina' ('Cupressina' Norway spruce) and Pinus strobus 'Fastigiata' (columnar white pine) are selections hardy to Zone 3 that like full sun. Other upright, narrow, green forms include Picea glauca 'Pendula' (weeping white spruce), Pinus sylvestris 'Fastigiata' (columnar Scotch pine), Thuja occidentalis 'DeGroot's Spire' ('DeGroot's Spire' American arborvitae) and T.occidentalis 'Smaragd' (also known as T.occidentalis 'Emerald'; 'Smaragd' or 'Emerald' American arborvitae). Picea abies 'Hillside Upright' ('Hillside Upright' Norway spruce) and P.abies 'Berry Garden Fast' ('Berry Garden Fast' Norway spruce) provide a narrow conifer with texture.

For alpine or rock gardens, miniature Juniperus communis 'Suecia Nana' ('Suecia Nana' common juniper), J.communis 'Pencil Point' ('Pencil Point' common juniper) or J.communis 'Compressa' ('Compressa' common juniper) are excellent.

Suggested pendulous trees are Picea abies 'Pendula' (weeping Norway spruce), P.abies 'Frohburg' ('Frohburg' Norway spruce), Pinus strobus 'Pendula' (weeping white pine) or Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Glauca Pendula' (blue weeping Alaskan cedar). If there is a slope or a fall in the garden, Pinus sylvestris 'Mitsch Weeping' ('Mitsch Weeping' Scotch pine) will make the incline seem more extreme. For shadier sites, Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Graceful Grace' ('Graceful Grace' Douglas fir) and Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula' (weeping Canadian hemlock) are dramatic green additions.


Abies koreana 'Silberlocke' displays recurved needles that reveal the white undersides of curled foliage.

Bicolors. Some conifers have bicolor needles with stripes, spots or patches of color. These trees attract interest because they tie various colors together nicely. For example, Picea omorika 'Nana' (dwarfSerbian spruce), P.omorika 'Pendula' (weeping Serbian spruce), P.omorika 'Expansa' ('Expansa' Serbian spruce) and P.bicolor 'Howell's Dwarf' ('Howell's Dwarf' alcock spruce, also known as P.alcoquiana) feature needles with green topsides and blue undersides. Green and yellow variegation is found on Pinus densiflora 'Oculus-draconis' ('Oculus-draconis' Japanese red pine), while Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aureovariegata' (aureovariegata threadbranch cypress) has green and creamy-yellow foliage. Abies koreana 'Silberlocke' ('Silberlocke' Korean fir; see photo above) displays recurved needles that reveal the white undersides ofcurled foliage.


Pinus sylvestris 'Aurea' highlights its yellow color in the winter and fades to green in the summer.

Change of Greenery. Style and color preference change each season. Conifers create theirown color trends by bringing different colors to the landscape at various times of the year. There are many fascinating conifers that highlight their yellow color in winter then fade to green in summer. These include Pinus sylvestris 'Aurea' (golden Scotch pine; see photo above), P.virginiana 'Wates Golden' ('Wates Golden' Jersey pine) and P.strobus 'Winter Gold' ('Winter Gold' white pine). P.glauca 'Rainbow's End' (Rainbow's End™ dwarf Alberta spruce) has green foliage in spring, then turns yellow in midsummer. Another beautiful conifer that changes color is Chamaecyparis thyoides 'Heatherbun' ('Heatherbun' falsecyparis), which produces purple hues in winter and soft blue-green foliage, resembling heather in summer. Pinus sylvestris 'Aurea' highlights its yellow color in the winter and fades to green in the summer.


Pinus pungens 'Walnut Glen' has neon yellow foliage in the spring.

Although new growth on conifers is usually a lighter shade of green, it can emerge as bright yellow or red. Picea pungens 'Walnut Glen' ('Walnut Glen' Colorado spruce; see photo to the left), for example, displays neon yellow foliage in spring and fades to lighter electric yellow in the winter and summer. Picea abies 'Cruenta' ('Cruenta' Norway spruce) and P.abies 'Rubra Spicata' ('Rubra Spicata' Norway spruce) emerge blood red in spring, then fade to green in warmer temperatures. P.abies 'Argenteospica' ('Argenteospica' Norway spruce) and Tsuga canadensis 'New Gold' ('New Gold' Canadian hemlock) emerge yellow in spring, then change to green. In midsummer, white tip growth on T.canadensis 'Gentsch White' ('Gentsch White' Canadian hemlock), T.canadensis 'LaBar White Tip' ('LaBar White Tip' Canadian hemlock) and T.canadensis 'Summer Snow' ('Summer Snow' Canadian hemlock) accent shade gardens before fading to green.

Color isn't limited to foliage, however. Many conifers produce cones and seed-bearing fruit that are brightly colored and decorative during different seasons. One example is Picea abies 'Acrocona' ('Acrocona' Norway spruce; see photo below). This compact tree produces purple-red cones on branch tips in spring. Abies concolor 'Candicans' is a narrow, upright fir with long, silver-blue needles and upright blue-purple cones in spring.

Many Pinus parviflora (Japanese white pine) cultivars are early cone bearers, so even small trees show off their cones. Most Abies have attractive inflorescence cone development in spring. These surprisingly colorful cones brighten both the trees and the landscape.


Picea abies 'Acrocona' is a compact, slow-growing conifer that produces purple-red cones on branch tips in spring.

Regardless of color and form, placement is essential to any creative project. Knowing growth rates helps in the proper selection and site choice for conifers. Problems occur when fast-growing trees are planted too close to buildings and to each other. By using slow-growing plants, a designer can cut the growth rate in half and double the life of the planting before the plants outgrow the space available. To prevent size assumptions, the American Conifer Society (ACS) has changed the emphasis from "dwarf conifer" to "garden conifer" because the word "dwarf" is a relative term with a variety of interpretations. ACS has also adopted four size categories for garden conifers: miniature, dwarf, intermediate and large (see table below). These categories will help determine what conifers will work best in the landscape.

The American Conifer Society’s tree growth sizes
Category Growth per year Size at 10 years
Miniature (M) Less than 1 inch 1 foot
Dwarf (D) 1 to 6 inches 1 to 6 feet
Intermediate (I) 6 to 12 inches 6 to 15 feet
Large (L) More than 12 inches More than 15 feet

Each conifer brings certain drama to the landscape. By using thse plants, landscape designers can create more than a landscape – they can create a work of art.