For some years there’s been an autumn National Conifer Week in the UK, celebrating the diversity and adaptability of this handsome, but now under-appreciated group of plants. Do we need a World-Wide Conifer Week? Why have we fallen out of love with this handsome, versatile, adaptable and tough group of plants?
From giants like the Californian redwood to miniature ground-covering junipers, conifers are found in natural environments around the world, from tropical, subtropical and mediterranean climates to arid, temperate, cool temperate and even alpine zones. They form the backbone of many iconic and much-painted landscapes, such as the rolling hills of Tuscany with its solemnly upright pencil pines; the spruce-clad hills of Scandinavia; the straight trunks of bald cypress emerging from the lakes and rivers of America’s south-east; the soaring trunks of California’s famous redwoods; the huge squat forms of New Zealand’s massive kauri; the golden larches of northern Europe, Canada and south-east China; the twisted and bent stone pines in Japan, or the sparse and drought-hardy Callitris (native white cypress) forests of northern NSW. And, of course, the unforgettable silhouette of the Norfolk Island pine, now an imported salt-resistant icon of many Australian coastal towns, or the majestic Bunya pine.
All over the world conifers are also grown and exploited as a fast-growing ‘softwood’ resource for construction timber (lumber) and paper-making. Most countries have large single-species plantations of radiata pine and yellow pine (Pinus spp.), spruce (Picea spp), fir (Abies spp.) and douglas fir (Pseudotsuga).
There are currently 615 species of conifers recognised which are divided into eight families. More than 85% of the world’s conifers belong to just three of those families: Pinaceae, Podocarpaceae and Cupressaceae, with the remainder in the five families of Araucariaceae, Cephalotaxaceae, Phyllocladaceae, Sciadopityaceae and Taxaceae.
Conifers in the Pinaceae family are only found in the northern hemisphere while the Podocarps are mostly native to the tropics and subtropics, although some are also found in Southern Hemisphere mountain areas. The 30 genera of Cupressaceae conifers are the most geographically widespread.
Apart from the enduring popularity of large well-known ornamental species such as pencil pines and blue spruce, plant breeding over over the past few centuries have produced many coloured-leaf and dwarf cultivars, once highly-prized as garden and pot specimens.
A look at older magazines and garden design books shows the majority of planting designs including at least one or more conifers.
Conifers have also been valued in garden design for how they can create both structure, when used as hedges, and focal points in a garden. There are very few trees that can make an exclamation mark as well as a narrowly-conical conifer, and most of those, like fastigiate poplars, pears and oaks, are deciduous.
So why we have fallen out of love with conifers? It used to be that every 20th century Australian garden had one, from the garishly-coloured Cripps golden cypress, to a super-fastigiate blue-grey juniper, a spreading Atlantic blue cedar or specimen blue spruce, or a towering somber-green Cupressus torulosa. But it’s rare to see a conifer as part of a new garden planting scheme these days, other than the (unfortunately) still ubiquitous Leyland Cypress ‘Leighton Green’ hedge (perhaps the most hated conifer in the world), or an occasional plush-green Juniperus ‘Spartan’. Christmas time seems to be the only occasion when we’re very happy for a conifer to be front and centre.
Perhaps it was that they inevitably grew much bigger than their too-small allotted space, and couldn’t be pruned back. Perhaps it’s that hatred of Leighton Green cypress ‘spite’ hedges that turns us off. Perhaps it’s that perception of conifers as ‘sterile’ plants that don’t provide seasonal change, flowers or habitat. Perhaps it’s that thick, matted root system that makes them tricky to plant alongside other shrubs. Perhaps it was our impatience for everything to be grown NOW, and finding that the smaller conifers took longer than we wanted. Perhaps it was the destruction wreaked on every cypress in Australia by white cockatoos which, in their search for delicious new cones to eat, turned each neat conical top into a crazy jester’s hat.
Whatever the reason, I do think it’s a shame. I remember a book-leaf dwarf Thuja in my childhood garden, and delighting in its elegant vertical foliage arrangement and, from my time studying horticulture at college, admiring the graceful, arching branches of tough-as-boots Juniperus conferta covering a dry embankment. Across the valley where I live now, I look out at the perfectly conical form and bronze-gold autumn foliage of a bald cypress, Taxodium distichum and from my first visit to the UK I was instantly in love with the dark, dark green of yew hedges and topiary. Driving through areas with large rural gardens, the zig-zag tops of a tall but unclipped conifer hedge make wonderful bites into a bright blue sky.
Most conifers are evergreen, a welcome feature in a cold-climate garden and many are perfectly-designed to shed snow and tolerate harsh frosts. Others grow in arid desert-like conditions and tolerate extreme heat and drought; several are front-line coastal and thrive in gusty, salt-laden winds; and yet other conifers are found along riverbanks, growing perfectly well in boggy soils and temporary inundation.
I think we’ve forgotten that conifers, while not sporting pretty flowers, have a huge variety of other decorative features to enhance our gardens.
Form: from sharply conical pencil pines to distinct broad-headed garden monsters, conifer outlines are unlike most other plants. Forms that particularly engage me are the twisted upright branches of Juniperus chinensis ‘Keteleeri’, and the snug, leafy pages of bookleaf Thuja orientalis Nana. The one conifer form I really can’t get to like are all those weeping cedars and larches. They remind me variously of poor, bent-over people with osteoporosis, or something that has unfortunately melted and dripped in too hot a sun. And there’s the icky standard forms too. Cupressus ‘Greenstead Magnificent’, as it’s properly known, was identified in my TAFE study notes as the one that:
“Looks like a green door mat on a stick”.
Conifer form can also be managed in extraordinary and very appealing ways, like the deliberately twisted and bent black pines that form the backbone of every Japanese garden. Conifers with very fine-textured foliage lend themselves to very tight clipping – for hedges, balls, cloud pruning and spirals. Juniperus ‘Spartan’, Cupressus ‘Goldcrest’ and Alberta spruce clip well into spirals; Junipers chinensis, blue spruce and Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa’ (Hollywood juniper) into clouds of pom-pom foliage balls; and larger conifers into walls, archways and tunnels. Taxus (yew) is the cooler climate conifer of choice for topiary animals and tight hedges, while larger growing cypress and junipers also make fantastic archways and tunnels.
Foliage: Deciduous conifers, like larch and bald cypress provide their own unique bronze-gold autumn/fall colouring, as does the evergreen Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’, obligingly turning a deep plum-purple in cold weather. Although I think there’s nothing like the flat, dark backdrop of a deep-green conifer for setting off the foliage colours of other plants, many conifer cultivars have been bred for their spectacular golden, chartreuse, pale grey or steel-blue foliage, as well as spangled, striped and spotted bi-colors. Contrarily in this world of colour, one of my favourite conifers is Juniperus ‘Spartan’ which has rich, fresh green leaves.
Several conifers also sport striking acid green new growth:
A conifer that surprised me a few years ago was the backlit beauty of the Wollemi pine, seen here in Hobart Botanic Gardens.
Cones: Conifers like the gorgeous Picea purpurea and Picea likiangiensis of western China have cones as colourful and decorative as any flower. Although, speaking of cones, some conifers can carry scary-sized whoppers, so don’t park your car under an Australian bunya pine, unless you want 5 kilos of gravity-accelerated cone smashing your car windscreen.
Bark: Other conifers give us beautiful or unusual bark to enjoy in our gardens, like the burnished copper trunks of Australia’s hoop pine, (Araucaria cunninghamii) or the Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris; the chunky tessellations of monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana); the flaky cinnamon bark of Pinus densiflora; the crescent-shaped resin-filled blisters on Abies amabilis; the deeply-furrowed gnarls and knots of California incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) the very attractive pale grey and brown peeling bark of the Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica). Other conifers with attractive bark include maritime pine, Pinus pinaster.
Fragrance: the scent of pine has long been associated with freshness and cleanliness but there are lots of other aromatic confers to enjoy in your garden. Species known for their scented foliage include: Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir); several species of Abies (the most common Christmas tree in North America) which can smell like tangerine (Abies grandis) or lemon (Abies concolor), many cultivars of Juniperus chinensis; Sequoia sempervirens; incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens); and the apple-like scent of Thuja plicata (western red cedar). One conifer to be avoided for its malodorous stink is Juniperus sabina, which is strongly redolent of tom cats. Eeuw.
Edible conifers: we have an old joke in my family about my mother’s love of gin and tonic. She always maintained that it was the bitterness of the tonic water’s quinine she really liked about the drink, until one day she had tonic by itself. It was then that she recognised the truth – it was the juniper berries in the gin that she really loved. The ‘berries’ of Juniperus communis are not true berries but actually a tiny cone surrounded by fleshy scales. They are used both fresh and dried as a spice in Northern European cooking and to flavour gin.
The most commonly eaten edible conifer seeds are pine nuts, from a variety of different PInus species around the world, including Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea) in Europe, Korean pine (Pinus koraiensis) and Himalayan chilgoza pine (Pinus gerardiana) in Asia, and North American pine nuts (called ‘pinyon’) from Pinus edulis and Pinus cembroides, traditionally eaten by indigenous tribes.
Other conifers with edible seeds include the Australian conifer Araucaria bidwillii (bunya pine), native to coastal Queensland. Its huge cones produce a kernel inside a hard shell that splits open during roasting, which was prized by Aboriginal tribes as a seasonal delicacy and bunya bunya festivals were occasions for inter-tribal trading, negotiations and marriages. In Tasmania, the berries of Microcachrys tetragona were used as bush tucker and, in Asia, nuts from Torreya nucifera are used as a dessert nut.
Some conifers can also be brewed into teas and beers, such as the new shoots of spruce and pine, which are also high in Vitamin C.
So take another look at conifers. Yes, they’re tough as old boots but they are also gracefully shaped, often pleasantly fragrant, have striking bark, offer a range of contrasting foliage colours, provide colourful autumn tones, and also give you pretty and edible cones.
And there are so many ways to use them in planting designs – as specimen trees, hedges, topiary and foliage contrasts. But, for me, it’s their form that really makes them unique in the garden, as nothing else replicates that sharp, upright conical spire created mostly by juniper and cypress.
Fortunately there are still some designers experimenting with this fascinating group of plants, such as Tom Stuart-Smith in the UK…
And Lisa Ellis in Melbourne…
Impressions Landscapes in Sydney…
To see a wide range of conifers online:
USA: The American Conifer Society has a list of Reference Gardens where you can see conifers growing, an excellent database of conifer cultivation information and also a very helpful Conifer Forum where growers and experts answer your conifer questions.
Conifers of the World database – search by geographical region for a list of species indigenous to that area