Cryptomeria japonica, Japanese cedar, is one of the best evergreen conifers for southern gardens with its soft, refined foliage, great beauty of form, and tough adaptability to the rigors of the southeastern climate. Many horticulturists are familiar with the full size, rapidly growing forms of this plant, 'Yoshino' and 'Benjamin Franklin', that are becoming popular choices for screening and as alternatives to Leyland cypress (xCupressocyparis leylandii). But many are not aware that there are over 70 cultivars of Japanese cedar with an incredible diversity of form, color, mature size, and growth rate. Cultivars range from tiny dwarf plants to tall trees, with many variegated and unusual foliage forms available. In fact, there is a perfect cultivar of Japanese cedar for each and every garden in the south.
The primary reason for this great abundance of forms of Cryptomeria is because this species is revered in its native Japan both as an important forest tree and as a beautiful ornamental. Japanese cedar has been the subject of horticultural attention and selection for hundreds of years, not only in Japan, but also, to a lesser extent, in the gardens and nurseries of Europe and North America. Two forms of Japanese cedar which are especially beautiful in the winter garden are 'Elegans' and a closely related form, 'Elegans Aurea'.
Both 'Elegans' and 'Elegans Aurea' are medium sized tree forms reaching 20 feet and greater with age, but they are slower growing than the cultivars recommended for screening with growth rates on the order of 1 foot a year (as opposed to the 3 feet per year and greater that 'Yoshino' and 'Benjamin Franklin' are capable of). They are both evergreen conifers with an informal, rounded, pyramidal habit but they both have very unique, completely juvenile foliage. The juvenile foliage of very young seedling conifers of all species is generally much softer, more feathery, and less distinctive than the adult foliage that will eventually develop on the plant as it matures. Cultivars of many species of conifers have been selected, however, for 'permanent' retention of their juvenile foliage characteristics (this proclivity of conifer afficionados to select juvenile foliage forms has created a nightmarish task for horticulturists who are trying to keep the identity of all of these juvenile forms straight!). 'Elegans' and 'Elegans Aurea', are two forms of Japanese cedar selected, in part, for their juvenile foliage, but they are especially distinctive among juvenile-foliaged conifers because the foliage of each changes to a dramatically different color in the colder weather of winter.
'Elegans' and 'Elegans Aurea' are both a bright, emerald green in the spring, summer and fall with wonderfully soft-textured foliage that can be compared with the softness of goose down (even the most inveterate conifer-phobe will never be 'stuck' by the feathery foliage of these two Japanese cedars). It is in the winter, however, when these two trees literally shine. As soon as
the weather has turned cold for a week or two, both 'Elegans and 'Elegans Aurea' begin a fascinating transformation. The foliage of 'Elegans' turns a deep burgundy-plum color, while that of 'Elegans Aurea' glows a startlingly bright, lime-gold.
When planted together, the rich plum of 'Elegans' combines with the blazing gold of 'Elegans Aurea' to create a study in garden color that defies description. These two Japanese Cedars are fabulous companion woodies for perennials because they are a fresh green foundation in summer - while the perennials are blooming - but in winter both 'Elegans' and 'Elegans Aurea' are transformed into bold sculptures of spectacular color while the perennials are dormant. These two Cryptomeria have the added attraction of moderate size and growth rate for use in combination, not only with perennials, but other specimens that might be overshadowed and out competed by more robust growers. Their moderate growth rate also makes them excellent choices to bring the interest of an unusual specimen or the dazzle of an incredibly bold hedge to smaller landscapes.
Like other Japanese cedars, 'Elegans' and 'Elegans Aurea' are well adapted to the heavy wet clays of the southeast. They are tolerant of most soils as long as they are not subject to long periods of drought. Most Japanese cedars are completely hardy throughout the Piedmont and Coastal Plain with a few forms being reliably hardy in the mountains (like 'Yoshino'), however, 'Elegans' and 'Elegans Aurea' are subject to foliar die back in the mountains when temperatures dip below the twenties. These two forms can be grown in the mountains with some winter protection or in a sheltered site, but beware of late frost damage on early flushes of growth in very sheltered sites where the plants may be 'fooled' into pushing out early. It is especially important to keep these two cultivars out of exceptionally windy sites. Both 'Elegans' and 'Elegans Aurea' are particularly easy to root from cuttings because of their juvenile character. Cuttings can be successfully rooted any time of the year (except during the peak of the first spring flush of growth) as long as there is some wood on the cutting. Cuttings will root best if treated with rooting hormone and rooted under mist.
At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans', and 'Elegans Aurea', glow from the Winter Garden with vibrant hues. They are among the most beautiful trees that light up the collections in winter. 'Elegans' and 'Elegans Aurea' alone are reason enough for a trip to The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), but once there, the thousands of other fascinating plants at the Arboretum will give you a brilliant new look at winter in the garden. br>