Conifers come in a vast array of shapes, sizes, textures, and even colors. Some, including spruce (Picea) and pine (Pinus), are tall, dense trees, ideal for screening property lines and blocking cold winter winds. Others, such as dwarf Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and weeping blue cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca pendula’) are sleek beauties showy enough to serve as front-yard specimens. Still others, some junipers (Juniperus) and spreading yews (Taxus cuspidate, T. × media ‘Densiformis’) for example, hug the ground and are perfect as year-round, low-care groundcovers. Foliage colors range from powdery-blue to silvery-gray, and gold to assorted shades of green. Some are even variegated.
Most conifers do best in full sun with good drainage, although a few tolerate and even prefer shadier spots. Two of the best known and possibly the most over-used conifers for landscapes are arborvitae (Thuja) and yews (Taxus). But if you’re looking to expand your conifer horizons, take a look at some of these:
Most Hinoki cypress grow upright but in an irregular habit.
Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa). Most Hinoki cypress plants have a distinctive irregular growth habit. This gives each its own individual character making them ideal as house-corner specimens, or as focal points in island beds and water gardens. Whatever their shape — tall and narrow uprights, or compact, squatty dwarfs — prune them sparingly and never shear into conformity.
Good varieties: ‘Gracilis’, ‘Nana Gracilis’, ‘Filicoides’, ‘Crippsii’, ‘Kosteri’. Ideal site: Full sun to part shade. Zones 4-8.
Weeping Alaska cedar (Xanthocyparisnootkatensis ‘Pendula’, syn. Chamaecyparisnootkatensis ‘Pendula’). This tall soft-needled green evergreen has a sleek, gently arching habit with branches that seem to drip branchlets. It is perfect as a single eye-catching specimen in your most prominent spot. Weeping Alaska cedars (not true cedars) grow slowly, eventually to 25 feet tall and 10 feet around. Give each plenty of elbow room.
Good varieties: ‘Green Arrow’ is particularly skinny form. Ideal site: Full sun to part shade. Zones 4-7.
Russian cypress, shown here with impatiens, is a low-growing conifer that does well in shade.
Russian cypress (Microbiota decussata). Russian cypress resembles a spreading juniper, with a low, elegantly layered habit and light green needles more like arborvitae than juniper. In winter the color changes to olive-green or green-brown. It seldom grows more than 1′ tall, but reaches out 6′ or more from the center. It is one of relatively few conifers that prefer at least part shade. Other common names include Siberian carpet, Siberian cypress, and Russian arborvitae.
Good varieties: ‘Celtic Pride’, ‘Fuzz Ball’. Ideal site: Shade or part shade; it does well in the dry shade under trees. Zones 3-7.
Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia). Similar in appearance to common English (Taxus baccata) and Anglojap yews (Taxus × media), but with slightly broader, soft, dark-green needles. They range in habit from tall and narrow (nice in narrow beds) to a more spreading and layered form better suited as a groundcover under trees. All are trouble-free and tolerate shearing well.
Good varieties: ‘Fastigiata’ (upright), ‘Emerald Spreader’, ‘Duke Gardens’ (spreading). Ideal site: Shade or part shade. Zones 6-9.
Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica). These have one of the most elegant textural looks of any conifer, created by the very soft, medium-green needles. The habit is tall and fairly slender, making it a good choice for screening along a property line or as a stand-alone specimen. Growth rate is medium to fast, up to 20′ to 25′ tall and about 10′ in circumference at the base.
Good varieties: ‘Yoshino,’ ‘Kityama,’ dwarf ‘Black Dragon’. Ideal site: Full sun to light shade. Zones 5-9.
Dawn redwood is an example of a conifer that’s not evergreen.
Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). If you’ve got the space, this muscular conifer is one of the most impressive and long-lived big trees, easily reaching 100′ tall and 40′ to 50′ wide.The soft, flattened needles turn a striking orange-russet color in fall before dropping. The furrowed bark becomes shredded and rustylooking as it ages. Dawn redwoods were once thought to be extinct, until a single grove of them was found in China. All plants in the retail trade are ultimately derived from this one grove.
Good varieties: ‘Gold Rush’ (golden needles), ‘Shaw’s Legacy’. Ideal site: Full sun and lots of space. Zones 4-8.