by Charlene Burgi
Typically I don’t think about conifers until the holiday season is upon us. What brought this tree to my mind, you might ask? As we drove up the road toward the house last week I noticed splotches of red in the shape of cones on the Picea pungens, better known as Colorado blue spruce. This tree made the move with us after the last holiday spent in Marin. It was kind of a Charlie Brown tree in that it lacked the perfect geometric cone shape so often sought after, and at the time it probably stood three feet tall including the large black plastic container it grew in.
After the move, we debated where to plant this tree. We knew it would grow to be big and hoped it would fill out in the process. We also knew this type of tree can serve as a great accent, and it was then we decided it should grace a pivotal corner at the ranch where the road branches in four different directions as it approaches the house. I tend to think of this tree as a place-holder for future landscaping. And, as a result, I didn’t pay it too much heed until the red cones, known as strobili, caught my attention.
Typically during this time of year, you might note that our conifers sport candles, or new growth. The candles look like someone bound all the needles into a tightly wound cylinder. Cutting the candles in half will assure a reduction in the size of a plant, and oft times it will grow bushier. I looked at the two dwarf Colorado blue spruce that sit like centurions planted in containers on the front deck, but they were only showing their new candle growth as a lighter shade of blue needles waiting to open and no sign of the bright red cones.
This find haunted me! I had never seen anything like it and I was curious. After poring through the burdened bookshelves containing volumes on plants, I learned that there are both male and female strobili found on conifers. Each tree assures a positive outcome for reproducing in this fashion. The female strobili carry up to 450 seeds and continue to optimally produce seeds for between 20 and 150 years. The male strobili release 370,000 grains of pollen for seed fertilization. Research suggests both the male and female strobili can appear red when young.
Coincidentally, during the same week we saw the bright red strobili on our tree, friends offered us several Picea abies ‘Nidiformis,’ better known as bird’s nest spruce. These treasures were not performing well in their garden. Jack and I revered these plants in our nursery days as we could only get them in from Oregon in December. We thankfully accepted them with the thought of adding them as accent plants around the natural lava rock outcroppings found on the property. These plants appreciate organic-rich soil, morning sun and afternoon shade, good drainage, and mulch. Given these conditions, they do not require much water. They are a must if you are thinking of installing a rock garden in your landscape. Just keep in mind that spruce needles are very prickly, and it’s not a plant you would place in a narrow planter.
Spruce. An odd plant to talk about during spring, and yet it is a beauty not to be overlooked if you are seeking out a feature plant in your garden.