Landscape conifers: The Good, the Bad, and the Underused

This week is our annual Great Lakes Trade Expo, the main trade show and education venue for Michigan nursery and landscape industry. One of my talks was for the Arboriculture track on landscapes conifers. The theme this year was “The Good, the Bad, and the Underused.” Hey, you try giving a dozen talks a year for 10 years and see if you can come up with an original title!


The selections were based the following, admittedly subjective, criteria.

The Good:  These are the all-around good guys.  Conifers that are well-adapted, good growers with good form and few pest problems.

The Bad:  The problem children of the conifer world.  Pest magnets, spoiled prima donnas, or incessantly overused.

The Underused:  Trees that have the virtues of ‘The Good’ but that tend not to attract attention.


Here are three of my selections for each of the categories.  I’m interested in nominees from other sections of the country and the world.


The Good:

Eastern white pine Pinus strobus This one flirts with the overused designation but I’ll give it a nod since it’s the state tree of Michigan and figured prominently in the state’s history when Michigan was the lumbering capital of the US in the late 19th century.  A fast growing tree that improves with age.


Eastern hemlock Tsuga canadensis   The answer to the age-old question, ‘What conifer to you recommend for shade?’  A little finicky on site, prefers moist but well-drained – who doesn’t.  But a great elegant looking tree.  The main down side is the specter of hemlock wooly adelgid looming to our south.


Alaska false cypress Chamaecyparis nootkatensis (Xanthocyparis nootkatensis).  Lot of confusion over the nomenclature but no question this is a great landscape tree.  Graceful, weeping habit; good growth rate; and few pests in this area (knock on wood).


The Bad.

Scots pine Pinus sylvestris  Is there a pest that doesn’t affect this tree?  Our Forest Entomologist, Dr. McCullough, had a grad student count up all the pests that affect Scots pine and they lost count after 30.  Borers, tip moths, needlecasts… the hits keep coming.  The problems are exacerbated around here because of abandoned Christmas tree plantations that serve as insect breeding grounds and fungal infection courts.


Austrian pine Pinus nigra  Austrian pine is a frustrating tree.   In some respects it is the perfect conifer for our region. A great looking tree with dark green needles.   Good growth rate, cold hardy, drought hardy, tolerates road salt.  Everything you could want in a tree and then some.  Then the trees get about 15 years old and the wheels fall off.  Diplodia tip blight, dothistoma needle blight…  Austrian pine is the ugly duckling in reverse; looks great when young and then, blechh…


Colorado blue spruce  Picea pungens  The tree everyone loves to hate, yet we keep planting it.  I suppose it’s the allure of the blue that people can’t resist.  It’s like that bad boyfriend; you know he’ll do you wrong but…  He’ll lure you in with those baby blues then start hanging out with those low-life Cooley adelgids, then hook up with rhizosphaera needlecast.  And by the time the cytospora cankers start hanging out you know this relationship is going nowhere.


The underused

Swiss stone pine Pinus cembra  Renowned conifer aficionado ‘Chub’ Harper used to remark, “I never met a cembra I didn’t like.”  Cembras are great trees, good growers with consistently good form.  Underused but worth looking for.


Korean fir Abies koreana  I wrote about Korean when in discussion alternative Christmas trees but it also makes a good landscape tree.  In our area we can expect about 1’ of height growth per year.   Symmetrical form; short needles with silvery undersides, and conspicuous cones.  Lot to like about Korean fir.


Dawn redwood Metasequoia glyptostaboides  A fast-growing deciduous conifer with wonderful pyramidal form.  Dawn redwood is also an interesting botanical story.  Only known to science from fossil records, an isolated population was discovered in China in the 1940’s.  Seed were imported into the U.S. and the tree has been found to be broadly adapted.

<p xm

7 thoughts on “Landscape conifers: The Good, the Bad, and the Underused”

  1. I can’t disagree with you at all. Though I still love a number of P. sylvestris cultivars. Needle scale has finally infested my P. sylvestris ‘Glauca Nana’. I hate to do long term treatments, but I’d hate to remove this 5’x5′ beauty even more.
    I’d love to see your complete list, sounds like it would have been an enjoyable seminar.

  2. Some Virginia Observations:

    White pine…. in limestone Virginia, most of our top soils are gone and the underlying high clay content sub-soils have poor internal drainage. Rot decline problems in variably develope and trees ‘die fro no apparant reason’. Not a good chhoice on heavy soils.

    We are in the throes of adelgid infestation…. no hemlock in Virginia and south.

    The bad? I agree whole heartedly… may need to add Leyland Cypress to this list.

    Dawn redwood… really neat tree for neatnicks. I like it too. Along those lines, I have found bald cypress to be amazingly tolerant of a wide range of conditions.

  3. I’m with you on your picks, though for Massachusetts now Eastern Hemlock is too much of a risk to plant, given the prevalence of woolly adelgid here. Some clients still want them, and are willing to have them sprayed or drenched, but where hemlocks are growing wild around here they’re in trouble. The Arnold Arboretum is losing its hemlocks, as is the New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden In The Woods — treating a whole forest (even a small one) is just not feasible. It’s really too bad, because hemlocks can handle shade (and their shade helps cool stream waters, which freshwater fish appreciate), and deer won’t eat them. Alas.
    The Underused are all great plants!

  4. Lots of good comments and observations.

    Regarding Pinus sylvestris, they are great trees in terms of site tolerance-once of the toughest trees around. In our area though there are just too many pest issues to deal with.

    Dawn redwood is different from Coast redwood. Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is native to coastal areas of California. Dawn redwood in contrast is native to China and is a different genus (Metasequoia).

    Hemlocks do best on protected sites. ‘Chub’ Harper advice for hemlocks was to avoid winter sun, Hemlock wooly adelgid was the ine cavaet I included in my talk. In Michigan we are still a good distance from the main infestation front and the northward movement seems to be slowing. We are hopeful that quarantine efforts will continue to forestall its introduction into Michigan.

Leave a Reply