Conifers aren’t all about leylandii, says Eden gardener Jamie McCormack. Read his ideas for five unusual conifers to plant in your garden – then join him to learn more about this ancient species on our one-day conifer course in March 2013.
So what is a conifer?
Ask yourself that question and ‘leylandia’ will probably pop up in your head. But there are actually around 550 species of conifer, which all have very different leaves and shapes – ranging from the ginkgo tree’s heart-shaped leaves to the Scots pine’s needles.
Conifer really means ‘cone-bearer’; all conifers have cones. Did you know that cones are essentially ‘naked seeds’? They’re seeds which aren’t contained within an ovary (ie not inside a fruit, such as an apple).
Where do they grow?
Conifers grow on every continent across the globe except for Antarctica – so you can even find them up in the Arctic Circle. Conifers such as pines, spruces and firs have adapted to grow in the far north, with leaves in the form of hard, little needles that can endure cold, dry conditions.
Amazing conifer facts
- Some conifer species are older than dinosaurs! They were some of the first land plants to appear, after mosses and ferns, but long before grasses and flowers (these didn’t evolve until insects and pollinators appeared). Some date back to the Mesozoic era, 300 million years ago.
- The oldest living conifer tree is 4,800 years old. It’s a Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longavea) in the Arizona desert.
- The tallest living conifer tree is 380ft high; a coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) in California.
- The largest living conifer tree weighs 1,900 tonnes. It’s a giant redwood (Sequiodendron giganteum), also in California.
Five conifers for your garden
A distinct and beautiful weeping, blue cedar that will really turn heads. It can be left to sprawl as ground cover, used to gracefully fall down a slope or wall, or even be trained upright to form a spooky, blue, weeping beauty. Try it in your small garden.
This beautiful, soft-needled tree will make a striking, evergreen feature in a medium or large garden. A fast grower in the South West, it is tolerant of most conditions apart from cold winter winds, as it hails from the threatened temperate rainforests of Chile.
Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba ‘Saratoga’)
With female ginkgos’ fruit having such an unpleasant smell (described as a mix of rancid butter and vomit) you’ll be pleased to hear that this cultivar is a non-fruiting male. In autumn the Saratoga has a buttery colour and will make a good addition to your small or medium-sized garden.
Now a much-loved – and slightly unusual sight – in streets, parks and gardens, the maidenhair tree once formed whole forests across Europe and North America around. That was before the dinosaurs, some 200 million years ago!
The ancient Dawn redwood is one of the finest of all living things. Known only as a fossil until its discovery in China in the 1940s, it has been delighting gardeners ever since. Tolerant of wet, boggy conditions, this large tree has a fine pyramidal form, good autumn colour and attractive bark.
Plant this fine, slower growing form of our beloved Scots pine to remind you of the bonnie Highlands. The Watereri boasts the special characteristics of its parent species, with warming red bark, attractive needles and a solid form. It will form a small tree eventually, but is in no rush.
Conifer course at Eden Project
Join Jamie on a one-day conifer course at the Eden Project on 26 March 2013. The day offers a great introduction to this fascinating, varied and primitive group of trees.
You’ll learn about their form, growth and care, their place in the garden and wider landscape, as well as their commercial importance for timber, resin and paper.
A guided walk through Eden’s gardens and Biomes will also give you the opportunity to identify many species, both native and exotic.