Back in late July, I was asked to participate in the 2021 Virtual Tree Symposium sponsored by the Friends of the Frelinghuysen Arboretum. Held every Tuesday evening, this past November, Frelinghuysen Arboretum has recently been recognized by the ACS, American Conifer Society, as a reference garden. Their impressive collection of some 450 specimens is the first in New Jersey to be given this distinction and as a lifetime member of the ACS, I couldn’t be more proud for the arboretum. Prior to this, in late winter of 2021, a member of the arboretum asked if I could locate a specimen tree for her. A Korean pine, Pinus koraiensis ‘Silveray’, was the selection and it was an important, highly personal, memorial tree for her. ‘Silveray’ has beautiful, silver-blue, long, twisted needles that, in time, can become quite large. The symposium consisted of four guest speakers and was out to dispel the myth that conifers are just dull green pyramids. The expert panel was chosen to highlight conifers, discuss their year-round interest by means of color, texture and architectural form and deliberate traits from propagation to their contributions, in a landscape, in their adult forms. The term “Conehead’s,” (conifers produce cones), was often used to discuss our “brotherhood” and although it started out as just a lecture for The Frelinghuysen Arboretum, it quickly morphed to include all ACS members in the United States and even Canada.

The first of the four lecturers was Bob Iiames, Jr., Groundskeeper at the 173–acre Lange Estate in Ludlow Falls, Ohio. Bob’s presentation covered a wide range of topics, from conifers that change color, to those that require virtually no pruning. He discussed conifers for shade, cultural requirements and spoke of new and exciting varieties and where you might locate such fine specimens. His 174, or so, slides exceeded even my slide count. Bob held the attention of all of his viewers and his enthusiasm was apparent as he rifled through his many exciting choices.

The next presenter was Christie Dustman who owns and operates the design firm, Christie Dustman & Company. A recipient of several design awards, Christie has taught at many venues including the famed Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Dustman’s talk “illustrated the thought process behind why she does what she does” and addressed conifers as a unique and often misunderstood plant category in the garden. Christie examined the criteria of “what is a sculpture” and made an argument that conifers are living sculptures, providing key artistic moments to modern gardens. Her argument that conifers should should be revered “rather than being relegated as blobs of the past” was a strong one. Her passion for her work and examples she offered clearly conveyed why conifers should be seen as “art in the garden.” One particular slide, I enjoyed, amplified coniferous material well suited as a sculpture. Pointing out such things as form, weather, permanence in durability, (rather than a flower or sheaf of grass) holding their shape (as opposed to herbaceous plants) and having an enduring presence, had this lifetime member conifer “junkie’s” full attention!

As the third presenter in the series, I focused on fastigiate and dwarf conifers that I felt were astonishing with their many attributes. Making the distinction between fastigiate and columnar plant material, I made an argument for using these types of plants in lieu of more majestic plant types, e.g., ‘Green Giant’ arborvitae. I spoke of the brightly colored conifer markings of bark, needles and cones and explained why knowing your botanical nomenclature is so important to your landscape. Weaving stories of travel and friendship into my presentation, I did my best to hold everyone’s attention and inspire.

The final presentation was Ted Hildebrant, a third generation nurseryman and propagator who grew up at Hildebrant Nursery in Oldwick, NJ. Today Ted and his life partner Elly Keyel own and operate Coldwater Pond Nursery in Phelps, NY. Ted explained how conifers are propagated, discussed specific methods, including by seed, cuttings and grafting. He shared his techniques and warned us of pitfalls to avoid when shopping for our own conifers. Magnifying on this, Ted pointed out “good graft unions from bad ones”, had us understanding potential pests and other issues to watch out for as we purchase at the retail level. I particularly enjoyed the ease and pace of his speaking style and how he made understanding types of woody plant propagation for conifers, seed vs. vegetative, so easy to understand.

For me, it was an honor and privilege to share my passion of horticulture alongside such well respected “All-star’s” in our industry. And, in so doing, possibly influencing someone to add a unique conifer to their own collection.