Thursday, March 20, 2014

Finding a New Conifer

 Unusual looking conifers can be purchased  in many garden centers or nurseries.  Different than the traditional spruce or pine that will grow many feet tall.  These unusual conifers have weeping, twisted, or slower growing  dwarf branches, with bright blue, variegated or yellow needles. You will either love them because they are so different or hate them  because they are --- so different.
The conifer below is a weeping form of a Norway Spruce, called "Formanek". The branches bend over and grow towards the ground, forming a skirt around the base of the tree.  This plant was growing in the display garden at Iseli Nursery in  Boring Oregon.

The typical Norway Spruce is a very large conifer growing  50-60 ft high,  typically found growing  in the woods or mountains, with branches that are upright and very straight.  It will  grow about 12" per year.  Much different that the weeping Norway Spruce in the photo above.  If you decide to  plant  one, you will  need a very large yard.  However the weeping  version can be placed in the front or back yard of most  suburban landscapes.  Both trees have  similar sun and soil conditions because they are growing on the same root stock.

Other unusual conifers can be very small and compact, with branches only growing about 1/2" per year. Below is a mature dwarf variety of a white pine called 'Sea Urchin'. This plant  was growing in the conifer garden at the New York  Botanical Gardens. Sea Urchin will only grow about 3-4 ft wide and can be planted in most sunny gardens without fear of overgrowing its spot. 
White pines will typically grow very large, sometimes planted in a row as a screen on a large tract of land, or in a public park.  It is a fast going tree. Much different than Sea Urchin, which is also in the same plant family.


There are many unusual blue conifers. One of my favorites are the blue weeping conifers.  This weeping blue atlas cedar is growing  in my own garden , and it appears  to want to take over my yard, Branches  can grow 12-14" per year. Weeping very gracefully in all directions. It has been in this spot for about 22 yrs and is the focal point of my front yard.
Cedars are typically very large and upright , usually not found in a front yard, unless you own a several acres.

 So where do these unusual conifers come from.  White pine and Norway spruce grow in the forests of Pennsylvania, yet I have never come across a weeping plant or a dwarf plant along the trail. Some of these unusual conifers result because of abnormal growths on branches called Witches’-brooms.  They are caused by a number of factors that result in a great proliferation of shoots with short internodes that can look like a bundle of twigs. Some branches bend or weep,  others appear as a ball-shaped dwarf plant growing in a tree. Propagation of these witches’-brooms found in confers, is the major source of many dwarf or weeping cultivars.

The name witches broom resulted because early discoveries of these abnormal plant growths were found on trees growing in cemeteries.  And people believed these were places that witches rested when flying through the night skies.  So it was not a big surprise, when I found my first witches -broom on a noway spruce in a cemetery .

About 15 years ago I was working at a church, installing some plants. One of the conifers that I was planting was a beautiful weeping Norway spruce.   I frequently use unique plants in my designs and this church had the perfect location for a weeping plant.  I noticed that on one of the branches of this weeping spruce  was a witches broom.  Unlike most brooms, it was  not on a branch 50 ft off the ground, but it was at eye level.  So at just the right time I took a cutting and grafted this small weeping branch onto the rootstock of a Norway Spruce.  Grafting is the best way  to propagate these unusual plants.  With a little  TLC my newly  grafted  witches- broom grew and 12 years later this is what I have.  

It grows about 1/2 - 3/4 of an inch each year. So it will be several more years before I can see its true form. Since this is a new cultivar, I will eventually be able to give it a name of my choice.

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