A Colorful Conifer

A Colorful Conifer

When I was a child growing up there was nothing like the anticipation of Christmas day. Waiting, not so patiently, for the day to arrive and hopefully open the gift that I had asked for. One of the benefits of gardening is that with every season there is a new gift to wait patiently for. Perhaps the most anticipated gifts are those of spring. Maybe it’s because of the low temperatures we have just endured or because of winters shorter days and longer nights. But now that spring is finally here, we again have the explosion of color and the unfolding textures providing us with a heightened sense for the outdoors.

Picea orientalis (Oriental Spruce) has for a long time been underused and under appreciated. Native to the Caucasus and Northeast Turkey, this majestic beauty was introduced in 1827. So why is it taking so long for the public to grasp its beauty? A strikingly beautiful conifer, orientalis offers a dense, narrow, pyramid form with glossy, dark green foliage. The needles are short, closely packed together and have somewhat of a blunt tip to them. Cultivated specimens often reach heights of 50-60 feet; however native trees have reached heights of more than 100 feet. Male flowers are a showy red and the fruiting cones, produced in abundance in May, are a bright rose-pink to red digressing to a tannish-brown. More notable, however, is its landscape value. Having a more narrow habit makes it suitable for smaller properties offering an incredible range of versatility. Used more appropriately as a screen than Picea abies (Norway spruce), it can also be useful as a specimen or shade tree when a coniferous evergreen is desired. Picea orientalis is virtually pest free, not succumbing as readily to the problems of spider mite, spruce gall aphid, and borer that Norway spruce will almost certainly get. Orientalis prefers moist, well-drained soil, as do most conifers, and is more tolerant of arid conditions than most other spruce. However, it is not classified as drought tolerant. Full sun and protection from strong winter winds are two other keys to its success. With so much versatility it’s almost greedy to ask more from this tree.

As with most plants there are cultivars available that can enhance already attractive attributes. This tree is no exception. Two personal favorites are Picea orientalis ‘Aureospicata’ and “Skylands”. Picea o. “Aureospicata” has me waiting all winter for three short weeks. Early in the spring “Aureospicata’s” new growth emerges at the tip of the branches in bright yellow. From a distance it looks as though there are tiny canaries perched on every branch. This phenomenon happens at the end of April to early May and is truly a gardener’s treat. By early summer all of the yellow tips will fade and mature to a dark green. “Skylands” is another gem that has been sought out for its pronounced yellow markings. A beautiful contrast of yellow exterior needles and dark green interior foliage create year round enjoyment. Both cultivars develop slowly at first, but given the opportunity finish nicely with a full, pyramidal outline.

If your intention is to run a hedge line of spruce down your property line to distance yourself from your neighbors then consider Picea orientalis as a solution. Its overall presence will be more narrow, thus enabling you to plant them slightly closer. However, this does not mean that placing them 5 feet apart is the answer. Often I see proverbial hedge lines of Norway spruce, Douglas fir, blue spruce and hemlock planted five feet from one another. This not only lacks creativeness, but it is an unhealthy solution to your problem. Poor air circulation, root development problems and light penetration will quickly point out the error of your ways. There are many conifers that can offer you the privacy you’re after. Some may be more fiscally challenging to put on your property at first, but given the choice of planting it right the first time or planting the area twice, go with the earlier. Hopefully your decision will be to go with a conifer that offers purplish-red cones and yellow new growth.

Robert LaHoff
Hall’s Garden Center