Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aurea'
gold-thread Sawara falsecypress
Its the dead end of winter and everyone's tired of skinny brown trees and flabby white knees, in spite of monotonous weeks of green salads. At this time of year, when we yearn for the first flash of daffodil yellow and the luscious magenta of early magnolias, who wants a low-fat landscape? No one I know, and there's one plant that tops the list of affordable, desirable, hi-cholesterol, ice-cream-sundae ornamentals, and, believe it or not, its an evergreen conifer (which are not normally flamboyant plants). That devilish plant is Golden Threadleaf Sawara Cypress, Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aurea' - even the name rolls around on your tongue like a sumptuous dessert - and sumptuous it is, some would say to the point of overload. Maybe it is a bit too much for folks whose garden wardrobes tend toward the drab - but how can you resist a plant that brazens a shamelessly bold, seamless yellow coat of drooping, thread-like foliage that sits like a huge canary-gold Easter Egg, waiting for spring's brights to catch up with it? No one I know, and that is the glory of Golden Threadleaf Sawara Cypress, its brilliant color appeals to everyone (well, almost everyone...).
Chamaecyparis pisifera is one of those species that horticultural humanity has fooled with for a very long time, and it is an easily propagated plant (it roots readily from cuttings rooted under mist) so the result is 'billions and billions' of cultivars. But not a single one can approach the old reliable 'Filifera Aurea' for purely devilish shock value. 'Filifera Aurea' is an old cultivar of C. pisifera with tightly compressed needles wrapped around pendulous branchlets hence the name, 'Threadleaf', to describe the appearance of the foliage. There is also a cultivar, 'Filifera', with the same type of foliage that is a nice quiet green. But 'Filifera Aurea' stores some of its excess sugars and starches that form in its needles as a bright gold pigment, a glorious gold pigment, a wild, extravagant, take-your-shoes-off-and-dance gold pigment that has to make any gardener smile, even in the midst of the late winter doldrums.
'Filifera Aurea' is a good sized plant, eventually reaching 18-20 feet with age, but retaining a relatively formal, broadly conical shape that adds to its bold statement in the landscape. There are other smaller golden-threadleaf type cultivars (like 'Golden Mop', and 'Filfera Aurea Nana') with equally bold gold foliage, but, because of their size, they're on the bench when it comes to brazen impact, while 'Filifera Aurea' is a varsity garden fullback (it'll knock the visual wind right out of you). Many of the Chamaecyparis pisifera cultivars perform surprisingly well in the hot, wet southeast and 'Filifera Aurea' is no exception. It will happily grow a foot a year (if not overly stressed) in a broad range of soil conditions as long as it has full sun and reasonably regular moisture. It is a veritable garden trooper, tolerating everything from sandy soils to heavy clays and is hardy from the coast to the mountains in the southeastern US - and its readily available in many nurseries and garden centers. Propagation is dependable if cuttings with some hardened wood are taken in the winter months and rooted under mist.
Full sun is important for the plant to develop intense color. Notice that shaded and north sides of plants generally show less color and may even appear green in extreme situations. This is because the lower light results in less photosynthesis and therefore, less sugar and starch available to make that all important pigment. For this reason, it is important to place 'Filifera Aurea' so that the south side is the one viewed. For example, on an east-west running path, place 'Filifera Aurea' on the north side of the walk so as you pass, you see the plant's south side. This principal holds true for all variegated plants whose variegation is the result of formation of additional pigment. Some variegated plants, however, are so only because areas of their tissue do not form chlorophyll (the pigment that makes leaves green) so underlying hues can show through (usually they are pale tones, like cream or light yellow). If you can't work this out on paper, come out to The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) conifer collection. A beacon plant of 'Filifera Aurea' basks in the sun just east of the Rose Garden on the north side of the broad path. This plant's southern side faces the viewer and is dramatically gold, while the plant's north side faces north and is significantly less brilliant with a much greener tint to the foliage. But the side that you'll notice and never forget is the bright southern side.
'Filifera Aurea' seems to be the kind of plant that inspires great feeling, its been called 'ghastly', 'tacky', and 'a 'horror' - but its not. It is a plant with one mission in life - to bring out the playful, light side of gardens, to brighten up corners, not relying on subtlety, but using a nuclear blast of gold color in a softly absurd, dependable form. Just try to walk by without hugging its neck.........