The holiday season is here, and some will be cutting fir boughs, cedar branches, and maybe a few prickly spruces for wreaths. The smell of conifer wreaths adds to the indoor ambiance. Conifers take on various odors that many appreciate and some give credit for health benefits. Conifers have different textures, and needle types, that make them ideal for Christmas decorations. Some needles are flat and soft, like the Red Cedar and the Port Orford Cedar, which both grow tall. Others are stout and sharp, such as the Spruce trees that grow worldwide.
Someone walked among the Red Cedars on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State and found one over 1,000 years old and 178 feet tall. Then another person discovered a small-growing variety or subspecies of this kind of tree. This Red Cedar stops growing at 10 feet tall and 3 feet wide and is ideal for smaller gardens. Someone probably claimed commercial rights to this tree. The legal limits of plant claims range from 20 to 30 years. This variety or subspecies was named "Sugar and Spice" and carries the formal name of Thuja plicata "Sugar and Spice." Another one known as Whipcord Red Cedar (Thuja plicata "Whipcord") is a dandy for residential gardens since it grows to 5’ tall and wide. It looks like a puffball with green strands. Some Oregon nurseries have these for sale.
As with a mining claim, individuals can claim plant varieties that are usually reproduced through cuttings and then are considered a clone. The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, reports, “Plant breeders' rights (PBR), also known as plant variety rights (PVR), are rights granted to the breeder of a new variety of plant that give the breeder exclusive control over the propagating material (including seed, cuttings, divisions, tissue culture) and harvested material (cut flowers, fruit, foliage) of a new variety for a number of years.” The time limit for owning the plant rights is anywhere from twenty to thirty years.
Most wild conifers are too large for community landscapes even though they are cute when young. Don’t fall for this cuteness by planting them next to structures. Trees like the Douglas Fir will eventually lift the sidewalk, tower over buildings, and blow down on property.
David Douglas from Scotland had the pleasure of naming this "fir tree" after himself. This did not sit well with another Scottish botanist, Dr. Menzies, who claimed the plant. Were they both wrong? A compromise came about. Douglas Fir still applies today, kind of. The problem is the tree is not a fir tree but a hemlock tree and botanically known as Tsuga! The prefix "pseudo-", meaning false, was added to the formal name once someone found the error. The name botanical genus and species name is Pseudotsuga menziesii.
The tallest known Douglas Fir is 326 feet tall and is located in Coos County, near Sitkum. A new squabble came about over this tree. Some called it the Brummit Fir, then former Coos County commissioner Ray Doemer wanted the tree named after him. Who prevailed? Big egos must go along with big trees! Anyway, the Douglas Fir is responsible for much good garden news.
There are at least five varieties of Douglas Fir that are attractive conifers for temperate gardens. Their wreaths smell good, and the varieties can fit well in the scheme of things. One variety call ‘Graceful Grace Douglas Fir’ grows 8 feet in 10 years, has weeping branches, and blunt needles. See the ‘tree bush’ here: http://www.iselinursery.com/index.php/conifers/pseudotsuga/594-pseudotsuga-menziesii-graceful-grace
Unlike Douglas Fir trees, some needles are prickly with sharp points like the spruce trees. The Sitka Spruce grows along the coast. One specimen, the “Klootchy Creek Giant” near Seaside, is 200 feet tall. Some estimate it to be 700 years old. The tree is medium green and can have a silver sheen. This tree does have landscape purposes in areas along the windy coast where strong winds laden with tiny salt crystals pound away with no effect. Other trees crumple and die in these conditions. They make huge wind breaks when planted in rows or a feature out in a field. Tenas or Papoose Sitka Spruce is a dwarf 5 foot variety that fits most landscape grounds. The Europeans prefer the subspecies terminology over variety. Another Sitka Spruce variety was found, then seemed to vanish. Someone found a rare golden variety. The official name of the Golden Sitka Spruce is Picea sitchensis "Bentham’s Sunlight." Bentham must have stumbled across it while taking a stroll. Before this, the Haida Native Americans saw this tree with spiritual benefits. It may be in production by now.
There are many foreign spruce varieties that have been cultivated for the home grounds, city streets, and open spaces such as parks. The spruces have many small forms that do well in landscapes. The Norway Spruce, formally known as Picea abies, grows over 100 feet tall. The medium green variety, Bird’s Nest Spruce, is well known. They usually form a dense green mound that is 3 feet high by 5’ wide. The Picea abies "Pendula’"crawls over rock gardens and covers 10 feet. Nest Spruces will do well in a 6-foot planter along a street or in front of a important building. Another spruce is a small green cone known as the Dwarf Alberta Spruce that grows 8 feet tall in many, many years. It is a proven addition to gardens.
The list of specialized conifers for gardens goes on and on. People like them since they grow into distinct forms and colors that can be arranged in landscapes or rock gardens. For example, imagine a 5-foot blue cone growing among seven dark green 2 foot mounds that partially cover two boulders. Now add a "Graceful Grace Douglas Fir" specimen by the boulders, and beauty begins to emerge.
Conifers are in season, and temperate climatic zones usually have their share of these trees. Cut some boughs, tie on ribbons, and hang them indoors. Cut small portions on your land and not where the Christmas Grinch will charge out with a list of trespassing charges. Usually permits can be obtained so you can cut a tree and wreath materials and avoid the Grinch. Call the county, Bureau of Land Management, or the Forest Service to find out about permits. This is a great adventure for the family, since it seems like we never find the time to visit our great conifer forest. Anyway it’s time to decorate the Christmas tree, and to hang some wreaths.
If you enjoy these articles, please post some comments. It would be nice to know if there are some readers out there. Happy Holidays!
George McNair is a state-registered landscape architect who has practiced exclusively in the south coast of Oregon for 30 years.