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Merits of conifers

27 November 2015


NEXT month, many of us will be bringing a conifer indoors to decorate. The conifers, or cone-bearers, are descendants of an ancient group of plants that were instrumental in raising the oxygen levels on earth, allowing life to diversify and eventually support humankind.

Most conifers are trees, and most are evergreen, typified by the classic Christmas tree Picea abies, or Norway spruce. Five years ago, I selected a pot-grown specimen for our first Christmas in Staffordshire. There is something satisfying about noting its annual growth in December, and paying attention to it the rest of the year, too (especially watering over summer), while it waits at the bottom of the garden.

If this approach appeals, it is important to select a container-grown one rather than a potted or containerised one. The latter have been dug up from a field with only a few roots, and actually do worse over the festive season than cut trees, which are more able to take up water, just as cut flowers do.

If you are opting for a cut tree, and do not like needles on the carpet, choose a Nordmann fir, Abies nordmanniana, or a Fraser fir, Abies fraseri.

I probably won’t be able to resist planting out our long-serving tree when its weight and my age converge to make the move indoors too cumbersome. But a Norway spruce is not a good choice for any but the largest garden, and, until recently, barring my one sentimental attachment, I did not feel drawn to conifers.

But then I visited the Lime Cross nursery stand at a show, Grow London, held in Hampstead. A wholly contemporary display showcased the merits of conifers. Some of them grow a mere 1cm a year; so they are perfect for containers or a courtyard garden.

My eye was drawn to two dwarf conifers. They had curled needles, revealing a frosty white reverse: Abies koreana “Icebreaker”, in smart terracotta pots, were “topwork” grafted at about 30cm, giving them the appearance of mini standard trees. The Lime Cross team explained that these specimens could stay in the same pots for a long time. Other slow-growing varieties that would be ideal in a container are Pinus mugo “Picobello”, Pinus strobus “Sea Urchin”, and Pinus parviflora “Adcock’s Dwarf”.

It is at this time of year, when the garden is mouldering, that conifers really shine. They offer winter structure in dome, cone, upright, or weeping forms. They can provide colour, such as the golden hue of Pinus mugo “Ophir”, or the steely tones of Juniperus squamata cultivars such as “Blue Star”.

Not all conifers have a rigid feel. The needles may be fine and lax, as in Pinus patula, but we are talking larger scale here — maybe 30 feet tall at maturity. Given the staggering variety of conifers, it is especially important to do some research — especially about ultimate height — but do think beyond the one with the angel on top.



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