Tis the season to be merry with........conifers! (of course) and not just with Christmas trees but with conifers as stars in the winter landscape. There are hundreds of fabulous conifers for southeastern gardens, and yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus when it comes to there being a perfect conifer for each and every garden and landscape niche. An unbelievable range of plants from Abies firma to Widdringtonia cupressoides, offers a startling diversity of form, shape, size and color for southern gardens, and winter is an especially excellent time to explore the potentials of these exquisite plants. The task of considering conifers for the winter garden seems daunting at first when faced with the huge palette available, but think of it in the same light as you do your first visit to a candy store, and then the experience is rapidly transformed from daunting to delightful.
When we first examine the options for conifers in the southern landscape, our tendency is to head for the familiar, or tried and true. While this certainly can land us with lots of wonderful plants, in the process we tend to overlook exciting new plants, or plants that have just not received the same stamp of approval from our neighbors as the more familiar options have. One way to avoid falling into predictable conifer plantings is to visit public gardens and arboreta in your area to look for unusual conifers that are performing well in your region and then purchase those for use in your own gardens and landscapes.
The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) has been a center for advocacy of new and unusual plants, including conifers, since Dr. J.C. Raulston began the Arboretum over 15 years ago. In fact, many of the conifers planted at the Arboretum for evaluation are conifers that 'should not' or 'could not' perform well in the hot humid southeast, according to then current plant dogma. But surprisingly, 10-15 years later, many of these 'doomed' conifers have turned out to be some of the best for the southeastern Piedmont - with its swings from drought to flood and back again in heavy clay soils. For example, plants that are native to western North America, like Thuja plicata, Western Red Cedar, and Cupressus glabra, Arizona Cypress, have thrived and grown to beautiful plants in the southeastern Piedmont, a climate very dissimilar to their native sites.
There are many examples of conifers thriving at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) from areas whose native climates differ from the southeastern Piedmont. These plants make excellent garden conifers for the southeast and deserve far greater attention from southern nurseries, landscapers and gardeners than they currently receive. One which especially stands out as a surprise star in the Piedmont winter garden is Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, Alaskan cedar.
This native of coastal Alaska, Washington and Oregon is one of the most graceful conifers both in nature and in the landscape. The informally conical tree can reach nearly 100 feet in the wild but is generally smaller in the landscape - approaching 20 - 40 feet with age. The foliage is a dark, rich, bluish grey-green and is draped in flattened sprays from some of the most gracefully
drooping branches in the conifer world. The top of the tree ascends in a narrow, feathery spire above the uplifted arms of the branches creating a distinctive and indescribably lovely profile, particularly when grown where it can be viewed against the setting sun or the winter tracery of deciduous trees.
The growth rate of Alaskan cedar is strictly moderate - a surprising trait since it is one of the parents of the bionically fast-growing intergeneric hybrid Leyland Cypress, x Cupressocyparis leylandii, (whose other parent is Cupressus macrocarpa, Monterey Cypress). Alaskan cedar makes a wonderful tall specimen or screening plant but it takes some time to reach full height. The advantage to its slower growth is that there is generally less tendency for the slower-growing conifer to blow over or to 'break up', i.e., have limbs stretch down and away to separate from the main plant body. It is best used in well spaced groups or as a single, well placed plant so its magnificent form and foliage can be seen and appreciated. Alaskan cedar also makes an excellent container or tub plant for patios and courtyards.
Alaskan cedar prefers evenly moist, well-drained soils in full sun or light shade but it has performed miraculously in clay soils at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) (including the dreaded brick precursor 'soil' of the field nursery). It is fully cold hardy throughout the south from the coast to the mountains. However, while native to northwestern coastal regions, Alaskan cedar may not take kindly to the extremes of southeastern coastal summers. It has shown no pest or disease problems at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) and maintained excellent quality foliage. Propagation of the species is from seed while cultivars are generally grafted.
There are a few cultivars available from west coast nurseries, where Alaskan cedar is more widely grown and planted. 'Pendula' is the most readily available with exceptionally weeping branches and an almost ghostly appearance. There is a wonderful planting of a number trees of 'Pendula' on a slope at the corporate landscape of the Pepsico grounds in upstate New York, renowned for their collection of huge sculpture in a vast landscape. To my mind, the planting of Alaskan cedar there outshines many of the famous works of art, as the trees seem to float down the hill like a congregation of magnificent arboreal spirits. Another, newer cultivar is an upright, narrow form called 'Green Arrow', from Bucholz and Bucholz Nursery, with lighter green foliage than the species. There also cream variegated forms. 'Variegata' and 'Laura Aurora' are two with good splashes of cream throughout the foliage. 'Glauca' has especially blue foliage and 'Compacta' is a rounded, compact form. The cultivars are all well worth hunting but, except for 'Pendula', they will likely be a challenge to find on the eastern side of the US.
Of the myriad of conifers that can (and should!) be used in southern gardens, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis is an exceptional standout. Its captivating form can transform a garden corner or knoll into a mysterious cove, or live sculpture gallery. A group of Alaskan cedar set artfully in the landscape creates an aura of wild grace like no other trees can. At this time of the year when conifers are in special focus, Alaskan cedar make a picture of quiet drama and great beauty for southern gardens in winter.