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Noteworthy Conifers
Juniperus horizontalis 'Mother Lode'

'Mother Lode' in a stone trough

'Mother Lode' as a ground cover



 Juniperus horizontalis
'Mother Lode'

Many home gardeners think of conifers as specimen plants suitable only for larger landscapes. But they deserve consideration as container plants as well, providing structure, form, and unique texture. Careful selection for growth rate ensures they will not overwhelm their container, and containers provide a perfect environment to provide the essential good drainage.

Retired gardeners, those with a small patio or balcony, or urban pocket garden are not limited to a pot of annuals. There are many slow-growing gems becoming available for containers and troughs. A favorite of mine in a cultivar of the native Juniperus horizontalis.  

J. h. 'Mother Lode' is very slow-growing and displays beautiful brilliant gold needles in summer which turn to shades of deep gold and salmon-orange with green overtones in winter.  It seldom reaches 6" (15 cm) high and will take years to spread several feet. Like all junipers it must have good drainage and full sun. Very tolerant of dry conditions, it is ideal for growing in a container on a sunny patio or balcony.  Zone 4-7



Picea orientalis


'Connecticut Turnpike'



Pollen cones


 Picea orientalis
Oriental Spruce

I don't often recommend that home gardeners in the warmer and lower elevations plant spruces (Picea) because they tend to be pest- and disease-prone because of our humid summers and hot summer nights. However, there is one spruce that is more likely to do well.

The "oriental" spruce is native to southeastern Europe and Southwestern Asia. It is a beautifully shaped pyramidal tree reaching 60 ft. (18 m.) tall by 20 ft. (6 m) wide, densely branched with graceful, very dark green foliage that is maintained to the ground. The soft (soft, and it's a spruce!), glossy, dark green needles are shorter than those of any other spruce, only 1/4 to 1/2 in. (0.6 to 1.2 cm) long., thick, and close to the twig. The new growth is regularly a lighter green. The pollen-bearing cones are often bright red before shedding pollen. 

Picea orientalis does best in full sun, but unlike most other spruces, tolerates light shade. It is relatively tolerant of drought and wind, but gardeners are prudent to protect it from excessive winter dryness and cruel winds. Few would dispute that this spruce is far superior to the ubiquitous Norway spruce and deserves to be planted more often.

Many selections for smaller gardens are available: 'Barnes', 'Bergman's Gem', and 'Connecticut Turnpike'.  An elegant selection is 'Skylands' which is bright yellow year-round with dark green inner needles.


Calocedrus decurrens



'Maupin Glow'

   Calocedrus decurrens 'Incense-cedar'


Ornamental Characteristics and Cultural Information

Incense-cedar (not a true cedar of course) is native to the Cascade Mountains in Oregon southward into California and Nevada. This species (formerly Libocedrus decurrens) can live more than 500 years and grows to 150 ft. (46 m) under favorable conditions in its native habitat. In cultivation it rarely exceeds 50 ft. (15 m.). It is a slender tree with a spire-like top. The trunk is straight and will taper from a broad base. The trunks are often fluted and buttressed. The branches emerge perpendicular to the trunk and then ascend abruptly upward. The lush and lacy deep glossy green foliage has closely overlapping, scale-like leaves that look like they were pressed with an iron. The foliage is held erect. The leaves give off a pungent spicy aroma when crushed. The bark is cinnamon-red, fibrous, furrowed, and reportedly 3 to 8 in. (7.5 to 20 cm) thick; this enables mature trees to survive wildfires. The pollen-bearing cones appear on the ends of lateral branches and shed their pollen in December. The 3/4 to 1 in. (2 to 2.5 cm) seed-bearing cones appear at the tips of the previous season's growth and have six pointed scales with two large scales that bend back from the axis of the cone, looking like a duck's bill. The seeds germinate readily, even in shade.

Best Uses

Incense-cedar will grow in a wide range of soils. It is very drought-tolerant; it inhabits areas that receive as little as 15 in. (38 cm) of annual rainfall. Nevertheless, young plants should be watered during dry spells. It grows well in sun or light shade, in a wide range of conditions. It is worthy of much wider use. It is especially useful in contemporary "yards" because of its slender habit compared to its height.  Deer do not browse it because of the pungent  foliage.

Of interest: It is the world's leading wood in the manufacture of pencils and, because it is so durable in the ground, is used for greenhouse benches, fence posts, and coffins. The deeply furrowed bark of ancient trees provides habitat for crevice dwellers like bats and brown creepers. The First Nations peoples used many parts of this species: the wood for construction, the boughs for aromatic brooms, the roots and bark for basketry.

Cultivars include 'Aureovariegata', 'Berrima Gold', Compacta', 'Maupin Glow' and 'Pioneer Sentry'.

Zones 5-8



Microbiota decussata



Winter bronzing

   Microbiota decussata 'Siberian Cypress'


Are you looking for a groundcovering conifer that will tolerate shade? (A conifer in the shade? Who would have thought...).

Ornamental Characteristics and Cultural Information

Microbiota is a very hardy conifer native to eastern Siberia, where it is found above the tree line in the mountains. It is the only species in its genus. It is a dense, prostrate, juniper-like plant. But unlike a juniper, you can fondle its soft foliage. It prefers cool conditions and demands good drainage but will tolerate a wide range of soils. Unusual for a conifer it will do well in full sun with adequate moisture.

Best Uses

Microbiota decussata is only about 12 in. (30 cm.) high but is a very wide-spreading, to 6 to 12 ft. (1.8 to 3.6 m). The soft, fine-textured, lacy leaves are in flat sprays that arch over with drooping tips. The foliage is pale green in summer and bronze to purple in winter. It is reported to be dioecious, but most plants in cultivation are male clones and have inconspicuous cones. The slender stems are reddish brown. This species does not appreciate heat or heavy soils and is probably not a good choice for southern gardens. Under good growing conditions it forms a wide-spreading carpet and is excellent as a foundation plant or on slopes. It accepts open wind-exposed sites. But it must have perfect winter drainage. It combines well with upright plants. It is worthy of much wider use.