A MAJESTY FOR ALL SEASONS
Redwoods, sequoias and bristlecones. California has the tallest, the biggest and the oldest conifers in the world. To excess, add extravagance. We also have the greatest variety. The whispering forests of the Sierra and Pacific ranges are thick with pine, juniper, larch and hemlock. We have drugs made from yew, homes from Douglas fir, fences from redwood.
Yet when it comes to landscaping our cities, we elected cedars from the Himalayas, pines from the South Pacific, cypresses from Iran. For our Victorian forebears, greatness simply wasn’t gracious enough. The conifers of California weren’t prize plants -- “specimen trees” -- selected to preside over a stately sweep of lawn; they were a renewable resource. Exotic plants served so much more clearly to demark town from country, civilization from the wild.
Today, the suitability of California conifers for home gardens has become a question of size. It’s a rare redwood that respects a telephone wire. Yet more than a century since Los Angeles gardeners first succumbed to exotica, it is no longer novelty but scale that is the prized attribute. Long-ignored California conifers are being brought to town, and the cast of exotic trees is being refined, this time in search of plants that fit in rather than stand out.
Except, of course, at Christmas, when emotion rules.
Conifers include any plant that bears cones instead of flowers. In North America, the group includes cypresses, spruces, pines, firs, yews, junipers and cedars. Open it up to the Southern Hemisphere and it takes in podocarpuses, often called “yew pines,” and the araucarias, such as the comically structured Norfolk Island pine.
There is no more beautiful school of plants, not orchids, not cacti. The leaves! (If they may be called that.) On so many conifers the leaves are needle-shaped, sometimes whirling right around a stem, sometimes standing out flat, sometimes dangling like pompoms. They come short, long, stiff, soft, bright green, gray, silver. Cypresses are distinct again, with lacy leaves patterned almost like snowflakes.
None of it is accidental. Everything about the architecture of the conifer is functional, evolved to equip an exact plant to survive in a precise place.
Pines occur in the toughest ranges: the poorest soils, along the edges of arctic, desert, ocean. Spruces and firs occupy the cushier ranges. Water-loving redwoods and sequoias sprang up in the rainy, fog-clad rain forests of Central California. A handy trick to tell them apart: Cones hang down on spruces and pines, and stand up on firs. In the case of junipers, the cones can be so small that they seem like berries. But on many conifers, particularly pines, the cones are the large, louvered affairs that we first gathered by the armful as children. Look! Mom! Dad!
Look we should, at any age. Female cones usually take two years to develop, with a young green season and a mature ripening one when cones open and seeds parachute to the ground.
Occasionally pines have one-year cones, says the curator of the Conifer Collection at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., Susan Martin, who laughs as she struggles to name one. Very occasionally they take longer. The San Diego Torrey pines produce enormous cones that can take 15 years to develop. Some other pine cones, such as the lodgepole’s, will open only after a resin seal is burst by fire.
All pine seeds are edible. Find a pine range and jays will be crisscrossing the tree boughs. Forest biologist Ronald M. Lanner became so entranced by the relationship between Clark’s nutcracker and the white bark pine that he wrote a singularly lovely book about it: “Made for Each Other.”
Lanner, now retired, worked for the lumber industry. It shouldn’t be surprising that loggers are among the most poetic observers of western conifers. They were out in the wilderness while gardeners created alternate Edens in towns.
Santa Barbara-based landscape historian Susan Chamberlin guesses that Italian cypresses arrived with the Spanish, long before the Golden Gate Nursery first officially imported them in 1858. By then, England’s “gardenesque” style was sweeping the world: A landscape became a kind of plant zoo, bearing evidence of round-the-world collecting trips.
Between the 1850s and 1880s, deodar cedars, Canary Island pines, Italian stone pines and Norfolk Island pines began arriving from Europe through nurseries in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. They were so much the rage that the 1870s estate of L.A. nurseryman Ozro Childs was laid out as a conifer plantation.
One tree became the twin symbol of faith and privilege: the deodar cedar. When, in the 1880s, Altadena founders John and Frederick Woodbury learned that the translation of “deodar” was “tree of the gods,” they had hundreds of them started from seed to plant along the entry to John’s mansion. This became the glorious stretch of deodars lining Santa Rosa Avenue and now known as “Christmas Tree Lane.” Tour Pasadena, the Adams District, Hancock Park and Beverly Hills, and again and again, the deodar marks the manor house.
Yet for all their magnificence, these trees too seldom met the planner they deserved. In the Valley, the stunning parade of deodar cedars along Sherman Way was interspersed with the wholly unlikely mix of Mexican fan palms and magnolias.
When the nursery trade began to develop a mature L.A. vernacular for conifers, the deciding factor wasn’t taste or ecology, but size. As pressure on land intensified, the vogue for mighty specimen trees slackened. By the bungalow era, cylindrical cypresses became the signature plant for compact gardens, and podocarpus hedges the privacy plant. Ever-shrinking junipers lined suburban walkways.
Once it is pointed out, the shifting fashion in conifers is as vivid as evolving house styles. Joan Citron, editor of “Selected Plants for Southern California Gardens,” relishes teaching the city through its tree choices. Leading a tour of Reseda and Van Nuys, she points out small Valley streets planted with what have become such immense trees that on one side, city pruners have cut trees in half to free up power lines. “Chop-offs,” she calls them, matter-of-factly.
Her favorite mistake lines Cedros Avenue in Van Nuys, where for two blocks redwoods so massive that they have 4-foot-wide trunks tower over tiny bungalows. Trees that need 60 inches of rainfall a year survived with a third that because a century ago, the Valley water table was so high. “Sometimes things out of position still work,” says Citron.
“Where it really gets silly these days,” she adds, “is with living Christmas trees.”
Faced with fast-growing trees and customers on shrinking lots, most garden centers long ago stopped stocking specimen conifers -- except during the holidays. For one month of every year, Americans want conifers.
It has nothing to do with California, or 49 other states, but a European tradition carried over to the Colonies by German immigrants. Who hasn’t heard the story of how George Washington defeated the British in a fateful Christmas battle in 1776 because Hessian mercenaries had signaled their dwellings by decorating trees? Ever since, December has been the evergreen month. Even non-Christians crave Christmas trees. Orchard Supply Hardware nursery buyer Ed Casey reckons the vogue for using living instead of cut trees began in the 1970s.
Very Earth Day, and, across most of the country, harmless. The ground is frozen. The trees don’t make it to Valentine’s Day.
However, in Southern California, tree decorating coincides with planting season; the impulse buy of the wrong living Christmas tree can, in years to come, overshadow not only your house but your street.
Nursery to nursery, the choice of varieties is the same: Italian stone pines, Afghan pines, deodar cedars. Most of the trees sold are right for the Southern California climate, but not all.
Buyer beware: Of the leading types sold around Los Angeles, the wrong California native can be the most problematic. Jerry Turney, plant pathologist for the Los Angeles County Department of Agriculture, has three words about the Monterey pine: “Avoid it completely.” They are from a wet maritime climate. They need too much water and, when drought-stressed, become prone to infestation with bark beetle.
Redwoods are simply too big, he adds, and also too thirsty.
To buy California natives, you need a nursery that understands how acutely our flora evolved to suit certain locations, to help you choose between gray pines, Torrey pines and incense cedars.
After selecting the right tree, it helps to have Turney’s planting tips. They start with: Find the right place. If it is a big tree, look for a spot 30 feet from the house and outside a sprinkler zone, where continuous dampness may lead to root rot.
In a perfect world, this advice would be on all plant tags, along with: Check the roots to make sure the tree is not root bound. If it is, don’t plant it. It could result in permanent instability.
Dig a hole as deep as the root ball but no deeper, and three times as wide. At a minimum give the tree a 3-foot radius, ideally a 6-foot one. Clear all turf. Break up the soil, plant the tree -- making sure not to sink it -- then mulch around it.
In dry months, deep-water the plant on a drip soak for four to six hours. If it is a native or Mediterranean tree, stop watering in the summer, he cautions, because the tree will be dormant and water could induce root rot.
Opinions about how much hacking the trees can tolerate vary between people who like to make them into shapes, and tree doctors like Turney who are called in when the conifers die. He doesn’t like to see more than 20% of the branches and foliage lopped off in any one yearly pruning. When it comes to specimen trees, he would rather see a conifer taken out than opened up to disease by a “top chop.”
Scent of pines
If conifers are proving unwieldy, they’re also essential. Studies by the city of Santa Monica have shown the deodar cedar and Canary Island pine to be among the top 10 pollution fighters. Then there is the romance: the sweep of the bough, the hours spent watching squirrels cache nuts or hoping the hawk will nest.
Yet the thing that compels us year after year to plant those big trees can’t be seen. It’s the scent of pines. The woods would not be woods without it, Christmas not Christmas.
Lanner remembers a colleague from the forestry service who struggled to account for the perfume. It wasn’t to attract pollinators; conifers are wind-pollinated. It may deter deer, but it also attracts beetles.
In the end, the forester quoted Goethe: “It gives sweet peace to men.”
Emily Green can be reached at email@example.com. Laurie Hannah, librarian at Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, assisted with this report.
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Trees you’ll still be enjoying many Christmases from now
There is no bad living Christmas tree, just ones that have been planted in the wrong spots. To help readers avoid making 80-foot-tall mistakes, we consulted seasoned horticulturists for their picks of the best specimen conifers for Southern California gardens.
Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica): Known as “rough-bark cypress” in the mountains around Tucson, it can grow from 30 to 70 feet tall and spread to 20 feet. Silvery foliage. Recommended as a quick grower for interior windbreaks. Should not be watered in the summer, when it is dormant.
Tecate cypress (Cupressus forbesii): Fast-growing natives from the Santa Ana Mountains “rejoice in interior stations,” wrote naturalist Donald Culross Peattie, where they can withstand winds that “wither the leaves right off citrus and eucalyptus trees.”
Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens): The columnar, finely tipped tree of so many Botticellis isn’t originally Italian, but from Iran -- perfect for our Mediterranean climate. Water when you plant it and as it becomes established, but then avoid irrigation. Don’t put it against the house, where so many valiant cypresses reach the eaves only to be decapitated.
Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa): Should only be grown in the coastal fog belt, within sight of the ocean. A hybrid cross of it and Alaskan cedar, Leyland cypress (X Cupressocyparis leylandii), is more adaptable. Requires moderate water and grows so fast it is often at the center of neighbor-vs.-neighbor lawsuits.
Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum). Cypress in name only; a closer relative of redwoods and sequoias. Native to Guatemala, Mexico and south Texas, this turns into a giant with a vaulting trunk and graceful, weeping boughs. Given moderate water, it can reach 40 feet in 15 years. Growth slows with age.
Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens): From the mixed pine forests of the Sierra, this intensely fragrant, slow-growing tree is said to have escaped the axes of 19th century loggers because of its allegedly inferior wood. Once established, it can tolerate low rainfall.
Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara): Century-old specimens of the Himalayan native are commonly 80 feet tall and 40 feet wide. When lower branches are pruned, the tree can provide woodland shade and mildly acidified soil perfect for azaleas. Keep the ground well mulched.
Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani): Slow-growing, dramatic tree that can take on tortured but beautiful shapes, and in some varieties grow more horizontally than vertically.
Gray pine or foothill pine (Pinus sabiniana): Foliage is lacy and gray-green; growing habit is open. It is often mistaken for the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis), a Middle Eastern import, and the rugged, slightly less open-formed Afghan pine (Pinus eldarica). All three are tough trees, well suited to our climate. With skillful pruning, the gray and Aleppo can give lovely dappled light, making them good specimens for a woodland garden. Because of the resins, plant away from homes in fire zones.
Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea): Ancient race of Mediterranean trees produces the pine nuts used in so many Greek, Italian and Iberian dishes. Pruned into neat cones every year, small specimens are sold as living Christmas trees. Left to grow in California gardens, they reach 40 to 80 feet reasonably quickly.
Torrey pine, also Soledad, lone or Del Mar pine (Pinus torreyana): When these wind-swept and rain-starved trees with gray-green foliage and purple-scaled bark were discovered north of San Diego, they were 15 to 20 feet tall. As they were planted in kinder territories up and down the state, they responded to water and shelter by putting on 4 feet a year. Within a decade, they had turned into 40-foot-tall trees with 30-foot spreads and massive cones. Best planted away from walkways.
An imported pine from a similar climate, Canary Island pine (Pinus canariensis) has a single-column habit and comical, endearing puffs of needles. Narrow, it is jammed in unlikely places, say along parking structures and industrial buildings, to fluff out otherwise hard spaces.
Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis) is sold in hundreds of varieties, from cypress-like spiral to ground cover. ‘Blue Point Cone’ comes on the market every winter as a Christmas tree and adapts well to western gardens. It is nearly impossible to find the native counterpart, California juniper (Juniperus californica), a 15-foot ornamental shrub that tolerates alkaline garden soils and produces sprays of edible berries essential to wild birds.
Recommended: “Conifers of California” by Ronald M. Lanner (Cachuma Press, 1999); Las Pilitas Nursery, 8331 Nelson Way, Escondido, CA 92026; (760) 749-5930, www.laspilitas.com.