Blue Spruce Blues

One of the roles I’ve evolved into over the past decade as an extension specialist at MSU is that of ‘the Conifer Guy’.  Conifers are great and fascinating plants.  The oldest trees in the world are conifers, the largest trees in the world are conifers, and some of the most interesting (at least to me) landscape plants are conifers.  Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, in the Upper Midwest we have gravitated to Colorado blue spruce more than just about any other conifer.  Part of this over-reliance on blue spruce in the landscape is driven by production (see, Linda, I’m not always an apologist for nurseries).  Growers want to grow what they know and what’s easy to grow.  As a nursery tree, blue spruce is a reliable performer that is well adapted to a relatively wide range of site conditions.  Of course, growers also want to grow what they can sell, and there always seems to be a steady demand for blue spruce.  In many neighborhoods it appears that there is an ordinance that every other tree has to be a blue spruce.  So what’s the issue?  In the Great Lakes region, blue spruce often look pretty good when young.  However, as trees age they become susceptible to several major pests, especially cytospora canker and gall adelgid.  So all those shapely blue Christmas trees that were planted 10 or 15 years ago are now a bunch of ratty-looking messes.  So what’s the solution for blue spruce burn-out?  Clearly landscapers and homeowners need to think beyond blue spruce and look for a greater variety of choices.  Here are three to consider.

– Serbian spruce Picea omorika  Whenever I’m asked to suggest a conifer, Serbian spruce is usually one of the first trees in the conversation.  While the color may not be as striking as a blue spruce, Serbian spruce still has impressive needles in its own right – bi-color with dark green on the upper side and silver below.  Adding to Serbian’s charm is its graceful weeping habit.

– Swiss stone pine Pinus cembra The late, great conifer expert Chub Harper used to remark, “I never met a cembra I didn’t like.”  Chub’s fondness for Swiss stone pine was well founded.  Here is an understated, consistent landscape performer.  Few pests, dark green needles and stately upright form.

– Korean fir Abies koreana  It would be a stretch to consider Korean fir an alternative to blue spruce.  While Korean fir is more broadly adapted than many of its pantywaist cousins in the genus Abies, it will still do best on the Holy Grail of moist, well-drained slightly acidic soils.  Nevertheless, Korean is tougher than the average fir and is a conifer with some character and worth a shot.  Korean firs are often heavy cone producers, which can add an interesting element of color.

8 thoughts on “Blue Spruce Blues”

  1. Thanks for the list of alternatives, Bert! I’ve found that people can be so overwhelmed by all the species they see at the nursery or in books that they don’t even know where to start – so they choose something they know. Have you considered making a brochure for use at nurseries? Similar things are done for alternatives to invasive species.

  2. The brochere is a good idea. People are overwhelmed by species AND cultivars. Several people have suggested I develop the ‘Conifer Corner’ series into a book and I’ve been ruminating on that. But I can see a lot of unitlity in a nuts-and-bolts bulletin or factsheet on conifer selection. Consider the seed planted.

  3. I have planted the Serbian Spruce after twice having them as Christmas trees. They are great here in Anacortes. The Abies koreana, l
    ike most of the true firs here, seems very susceptible to balsalm wooly adelgids. Have never been able to keep it alive. Good report – is Chaemacyparis hardy in MN? Does well here in all of its forms. And why don’t all of the Sequoiadendrons planted around here have babies? Just curious.

  4. In Seattle, pretty much all spruces get spruce gall. I would never plant one. If people want a tree that stays small, there are dwarf silver Korean Firs.

  5. I do love a good conifer! On climate factors alone I can only drool over photos of the species Bert’s mentioned. Melbourne isn’t the best place to be growing any of those conifers! We have a couple of native conifers that are wonderful plants too, and have used quite extensively in landscapes here for the last 100 years. Araucaria bidwillii, or Bunya Pine, is an amazing tree. It produces massive cones (bigger than a football) which also contain the most delicious nuts – they make a mean pesto! Wollemia nobilis has a wonderful history, despite only being known to science and horticulture for a paltry 16 years. It was believed to have existed only in the fossil records before it was ‘discovered’ in a single, isolated and still secret canyon in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. I believe they’re even growing a specimen in a botanic garden in Scotland somewhere, so perhaps it’d do well in the cold climes of American colder regions too? On the whole I totally agree, conifers are fascinating plants! I use prostrate junipers in my design work all the time, I love to work with them.

  6. There are so many conifers that I consider to be friends. I grew up in CA, so I saw ones like the Canary Island pine and Monterey pine there. Love playing scratch n’ sniff with Jeffrey pine. A favorite is the Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla).

    I also like the weeping blue Atlas cedar. First saw one (in serpentine form, no less) at a water conservation garden I worked at.

    Another favorite is one of those few deciduous conifers – the dawn redwood.

    So many good choices out there in the conifer world! I do like blue spruces, but they are everywhere.

  7. Scratch and sniff! Bert, I think you need to include scratch-n-sniff technology into your books! What a great way to help identify conifers!

  8. This hits home! Our two huge blue spruce (one of either side of the driveway) will probably have to come down at some point so we can get the cars out! On the other hand, we planted a swiss stone pine three years ago in the backyard and it’s doing beautifully. I was happy to be reminded of your blog by Gardenrant and now have you bookmarked! Thanks for all the great information.

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