Not Just Dull, Green Pyramids


     Often I find myself making comparisons between plants and wine. Being passionate about both has me always being inquisitive and never knowing it all. Having a deep appreciation for a subject matter leads to more interesting conversation, while strengthening relationships with others who share your interests. Enjoying wine can simply mean liking the taste of what you’re drinking. However, appreciating wine goes a bit further. It understands the ‘terroir’, a French word used as a collective term to describe the growing conditions of a vineyard, specifically the soil, climate, drainage, slope and topography to name a few.  It is to understand the subtle nuances that make up this wonderful food, eclipsing the idea that one bottle of cabernet sauvignon is like any other bottle of cabernet sauvignon. Those who know wine can tell you that it is this ‘terroir’ that encompasses unmistakable attributes and characteristics which define certain regions of the world. That said, cabernet from Paso Robles tastes differently than that of Bordeaux. I enjoy both!

The same holds true with plant material. There are those whom I speak with in retail that simply want a dull, green pyramid dumped at the corner of their house, happy to have a plant that simply fills the space. Then there are those who I come across that ask more insightful questions. Questions about a trees bark, leaf or needle color markings and the development of cones all lead to longer conversation and an almost certain kinship. So what about those cones that seems to spark interest? Can they really be that interesting? And for that matter, can a conifer really flower?

The word conifer is derived from the Latin words, conus and ferre, meaning to bear cones. While all plants within this group do bear cones, not all do it with such flare. “Beginning as a tight cluster of female flowers, the cone develops to provide a receptacle, to nurture the growing seeds after fertilization” (Gardening with Conifers, Adrian Bloom). Male flowers may also grow in the shape of a cone; however, academically these remain flowers. Typically, the flowers and cones develop in the spring with cedars being an exception.  Conifers that develop male and female flowers on the same tree are monoecious while those that develop them on different plants are dioecious. Male flowers can be as brightly colored as a male peacock pheasant. It is these brightly colored images on conifers that help pull me through the doldrums of winter.

Some of the more spectacular markings to look forward to this spring appear on Oriental spruce (Picea orientalis). Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’, a yellow form in our front yard, will develop red flowers this spring and an abundance of narrow cones. It is this explosion of red color backed with yellows and greens that I wait for every spring. Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ is a conifer unlike any other. The recurved foliage of this tree has silver, white and blue markings. And while this alone would be enough to entice even the most experienced gardener, arguably the cones are even more impressive. Often described as violet-purple, these can be as long as 3 inches and as wide as one. Abies procera ‘Glauca Prostrata’ is another tree that develops beautiful crimson-red flowers in the spring. If you are unfamiliar with this tree in a garden consider the parent plant Abies procera (Noble fir) as your next cut Christmas tree. With gorgeous blue-green foliage, this is sure to outlast any other cut tree.  Another botanical wonder worth mentioning is Picea abies ‘Acrocona’. Aptly named, ‘Acrocona’ means with terminal cones. Dripping with tons of cones held at its tips, this Norway spruce has phenomenal early spring markings. Screaming, raspberry red, male and female flowers develop, occurring on even the youngest of trees. Yet another harbinger of spring is Abies alba ‘Holden Arboretum’. This dwarf, silver fir has impressed me in recent years with its honey-green cones. The parent plant is capable of producing cones almost a half a foot by two inches wide.

When I first started in horticulture I thought the botanical nomenclature was difficult. Words like Metasequoia glyptostroboides don’t exactly roll off your tongue at first.

Going forward, trying to memorize grapes and regions has been an equally daunting task. Blessed with a loving family, a job that I truly love and a hobby, oenology, that I am eager to understand more of has me more than fulfilled. My cup has runnith over!