UNITED STATES—Conifers are the most prominent forest trees in North America, but are notably scarce in home gardens. Except for compact varieties of juniper (which were probably too common years ago) and arborvitae, most conifers are trees that get too big for residential gardens, and few adapt to regular pruning that might keep them contained. Almost all are evergreen, so block sunlight in winter.
Gingko (maidenhair tree), bald cypress and dawn redwood happen to be deciduous conifers; but gingko is typically thought of as a ‘broadleaf’ (not coniferous) tree, and bald cypress and dawn redwood are quite rare. The various podocarpuses are useful coniferous trees that happen to be very complaisant to pruning, but like gingko, they are typically thought of as broadleaf trees.
Junipers and arborvitaes are just as practical for home gardens as they ever were, and the many modern varieties that have been introduced over the years are even more interesting than the old classics. Modern arborvitaes are more compact. Modern junipers exhibit more colorful foliage, and more distinctive forms and textures. Foliage can be lemony yellow or blue like a blue spruce.
Simply speaking, conifers are cone bearing plants. They are typically outfitted with needle or scale leaves. Of course, it is not that simple. Juniper seeds are contained in fleshy structures that resemble berries. Gingo and podocarpus seeds actually come with a squishy mess. So, ‘cones’ are not always as easy to recognize as pine cones are. Neither are the wide ‘needles’ of gingko.
Redwoods, pines, cedars, cypresses, Leyland cypresses, spruces and firs are the more familiar of the larger coniferous trees. Bunya bunya, Norfolk Island pine, western red cedar, incense cedar and the various yews and chamaecyparises are somewhat rare. Larch and hemlock are very rare because they do not like the climate here. With few exceptions, these larger conifers have dominant central trunks that can not be pruned down without ruining the structure of the trees as they develop.
Highlight: Oriental spruce
If it got as big as it does in the wild, Oriental spruce, Picea orientalis, would not fit into many home gardens. It can get more than a 100 feet tall! Fortunately, it does not often get much more than 25 feet tall locally. Trees that compete with taller trees in forested landscapes might get to 40 feet tall. Their symmetrically conical canopies get about 15 or 20 feet broad.
The tiny needles of Oriental spruce are less than half an inch long, so are smaller than those of any other spruce. Relative to the finely textured deep green foliage, the densely arranged and neatly angular stems are notably stout. Like other spruces, Oriental spruce is best where it has sufficient space to retain lower stems down to the ground. It can look rather silly with a bare lower trunk.
Garden varieties are more common and stay smaller than the straight species. ‘Skylands’ has yellow foliage, although it fades in warm situations. ‘Aurea’ has paler pastel yellow new foliage that matures to green. ‘Gowdy’ has a narrow columnar form, and grows very slowly. ‘Nana’ develops as a plump low mound that stays less than three feet tall. All like to be watered somewhat regularly.