A Pedestrian Shrub No More
For years I have thought Dwarf Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) to be the most overused plant in the plant kingdom. Seen far too often as foundation entrance pieces, a vertical accent in a planter or dumped on either side of a front door as a holiday garnish. These solutions are easy, lack imagination and seem all too pedestrian to me. Significant strides have been made and various flavors are now available to gardeners looking for cultivars whose heritage is derived from Picea glauca (White Spruce). Dwarf Alberta or Dwarf White Spruce has its “Roots”, literally, from that of the more majestic conifer. This “natural dwarf”, as Michael Dirr describes, “was found by J.G. Jack and Alfred Rehder at Lake Laggan, Alberta, Canada in 1904 as they awaited a train to bring them back to the Arnold Arboretum.” Ever since then, it seems, almost every home in America has found a way to adorn some part of their landscape with one of these dwarf spruce. Having said this, today there are many alternatives or cultivars available to the public to satisfy the urge of having a diminutive spruce with a pyramidal habit on their property. Many of which are far more exciting, offering additional attributes than just a small, green pyramid.
While there are a number of dwarf forms of white spruce I am limiting this article to those that share the common characteristics of an upright form with a pyramid appearance. However, these little guys will have a sense of style associated with them. Picea glauca ‘Rainbow’s End’ is an exciting cultivar with great seasonal interest.
In the spring, the new growth is light green, no arguments that this is not extraordinary; however, the second flush of growth in the summer is remarkable. Bright, lemon-yellow new growth emerges and is showcased with the older, darker green foliage behind it. This is a mutation that was found at Iseli Nursery, the conifer capital of the world, in 1978. Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’ is similar to ‘Rainbow’s End’ with its colorful growth spurts, although this one has almost microscopic advancements in the garden. ‘Pixie Dust’ is perfect for planters, rock gardens or anywhere a tiny colorful pyramid is needed for a great garden accent. Picea glauca ‘Sanders Blue’ has an attractive, slate blue appearance. It reminds me of a quilt with a patchwork or greens and blues. Picea glauca ‘Blue Wonder’ is developing into the answer for an Alberta that is blue. While it is quite better than some of the others which have been offered, it’s still not quite perfect. However, it is distinctively more blue than most and looks great when coupled with perennials and annuals in container gardens. Finally, an alternative to the more pedestrian Dwarf Alberta Spruce, Picea glauca ‘Jean’s Dilly’ is a dwarf of a dwarf. Pronounced John’s Dilly and named for Jean Iseli, founder of Iseli Nursery, this remarkable little pyramid has shorter, thinner needles than its predecessors. During the growing season its needles area arranged in a distinctive twist. Spring growth starts later than other ‘Conica’ types and ‘Jean’s Dilly’ grows two thirds the rate of ‘Conica’. Found at Iseli Nursery in 1981 this diminutive form was aptly named by Jean’s brother Andre. I mention this form because even though it is a green form its tiny structure lends itself well to container gardening. Situated in small numbers, you could mix perennials, annuals or deciduous materials amongst them and easily create a small garden wonderland.
Requirements for Alberta’s are similar to most other conifers. Full sun and well drained, acidic soils are key to their success. Stephen Schuckman, New Jersey Certified Tree Expert, Horticulturist, colleague, former employer and long time friend, reminded me that it is my due diligence to inform those interested in planting Dwarf Alberta Spruce of a serious pitfall. Red spider-mites! As Steve says, “Alberta’s are a condominium for spider-mites”. While he is correct, the problem is preventable and curable through the use of many over the counter insecticides.