form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


Winter Wonderland – California Style

conifers, leucadendron, cordyline

Winter in the foliage garden is often even more colorful than summer

We think of a winter wonderland as a landscape covered with snow, glazed and glistening, soft and serene. But for those of us who never receive snow’s purifying blanket, wonderland in winter is provided by the cold-weather hues of the conifers, the enduring, often colorful, leaves and bracts of broad-leaved evergreens and the ornamentation provided by berries, stems and seeds. Above, starting on the left,  the Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’ (hardy to USDA Zone 3) wears an apricot winter coat (it’s yellow in the summer months), the Juniperus communis ‘Berkshire'(Zone 2) turns from blue-green to a rich plum color in the cold weather, the Cordyline banksii ‘Electric Flash’ (Zone 9), Pinus mugo ‘Pal Maleter’ (Zone 2), Leucadendron ‘Ebony’ (Zone 9), Loropetalum chinensis (Zone 7) and Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Greenstead Magnificent’ (Zone 7) are electric and magnificent all year-round. This rich horticultural tapestry is not difficult to achieve and creates a wonderland in the dead of winter.

barberry, Sweetgum, big cone pinyon pine tree

Winter color on Berberis thunbergii ‘Orange Rocket’ and Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Gumball’ are a dazzling combination with the icy blue juvenile foliage of Pinus maximartinezii.

Some of the winter colors come from the deciduous trees that are late to turn and even later to drop their leaves. Both the barberry (Zone 5) and sweetgum (Zone 5) above hold their leaves well into December in this zone, and by planting them near a blue-needled conifer, in this case big-cone pinyon pine (Zone 9), we get the dramatic effect provided by   complementary colors (color wheel-opposites).

Abies pinsapo 'Horstmann', Cordyline 'Design-a-Line Burgundy

A rich but more muted display comes from the analogous (adjacent on the color wheel) colors of blue and red. The rusty buds of the fir echo the dusky maroon of the Cordyline (Zone 9b).

Abies pinsapo, Spanish fir, has many cultivars that are garden-worthy. ‘Horstmann’, (Zone 6) pictured above, is slow growing and diminutive relative to its wild parents. Its blue-green needles are lovely themselves, but its russet buds, which are carried through the dormant season, provide additional interest. Note the contrast in shapes and textures of the two plants, as well as the lively color combination.

Beautyberry, dogwood, conifers

Brilliant display: Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’ , Cornus sanguinia ‘Midwinter Fire’, Parrotia persica ‘Vanessa’

Some plants are dramatic in winter yet would barely catch your notice in other months. The above trio provides stunning color: the Callicarpa (Zone 5) with itpurple berries, the Persian ironwood (Zone 4) cloaked in golden leaves, and Midwinter Fire dogwood’s (Zone 5) brilliant stems. However, all are unassuming in shape, color and texture for most of the year. It’s only when the weather turns cold that they erupt into this colorful display. And as if that weren’t enough, the ‘Motherlode’ (Zone 3) and ‘Blue Star’ (Zone 4) junipers and ‘Shirome-janome’ Japanese black pine (Zone 5) provide golden and blue highlights.

Monterey cypress, Australian plants

Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Greenstead Magnificent’ and Cordyline ‘Cha Cha’

Weak winter sun creates pleasing shadows and highlights, unlike summer’s harsh overhead glare. The Monterey cypress cultivar on the left, ‘Greenstead Magnificent’ shows off its sea-green color and tweedy texture much better in winter than summer, and the Cordyline’s delicate straps are teased and separated by the weak light. Cold also brings out its pink highlights.

Opuntia santarita 'Tubac'

Don’t ignore the color and texture that garden art and sculpture can add

Some inanimate additions can pump up the color and texture, such as ceramics or water features. The celadon ball intensifies the Echeveria‘s (Zone 9) color and the water reflects the Opuntia santa-rita ‘Tubac’ (Zone 8) as it is touched by the morning sun.

succulents and conifers

Agave vilmoriniana ‘Stained Glass’ and Yucca desmetiana ‘Blue Boy’ steal the show in this shot

The glazed ball dominates the Echeveria, but when we step back we see it in context with the larger plants. It still provides textural and structural contrast, but the ‘Stained Glass’ octopus agave (Zone 9) and the clump of ‘Blue Boy’ yucca (Zone 7) are hard to compete with!

Cousin Itt Acacia, Agave Quasimodo

Agave ‘Cornelius’ (Zone 9) and Acacia cognata ‘Mini-Cog’ (Cousin Itt)

Although we’ve been focusing on other colors, brilliant green is just as dramatic in winter as purple or orange, especially when it is contrasted with yellow and gold, as in the above photo. Acacia Cousin Itt (Zone 9) is mouthwateringly verdant all year round, but we really appreciate it in winter’s soft light, especially when highlighted with nearby yellow foliage.


In winter the low setting sun ignites the golden foliage

The yellow foliage, already a winter beacon, becomes downright fiery when hit by the late afternoon sun. Even the drabber colors, such as that of the tall Cunninghamia unicanaliculata (China fir, Zone 7) in the above photo, lights up like a torch.

Echeveria agavoides 'Prolifera', Lomandra 'Platinum Beauty'

Many succulents become colorful due to the stress of cold weather

Like many conifers, a goodly number of succulents take on added hues in winter. The Echeveria agavoides ‘Prolifera'(Zone 9) pictured above looks like it is wearing nail polish, but it’s just its response to colder weather. The Lomandra ‘Platinum Beauty’, (Zone 8) on the other hand, is always beautiful!

Graptoveria, Sedum pork and beans, palms, aloe

We’ve shown you this shot before – it’s a combo that won’t quit, no matter the time of year

We also appreciate our workhorses: the plants that look lovely all year round, need little to no maintenance and don’t quickly outgrow their spaces, such as the Aloe arborescens, (zone 8), Chamerops humilus ‘Cerifera’ (zone 8), Graptoveria ‘Fred Ives’ (Zone 9) and Sedum rubrotinctum (Zone 9) pictured above. Cold weather doesn’t stop their display, rather, it adds more red highlights to the Sedum. Even if you are in a colder zone, you can  plan for at least one part of your garden that looks good in all seasons.

cedars, conifers

Let’s not forget the blues!

We tend to love the warm colors in winter but blue can be just as colorful and dramatic. The combination of Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’ (Zone 6) and Cedrus deodara ‘Prostrate Beauty’ (Zone 7), together with a variety of blue-foliaged succulents makes and icy display in front of the golden needles of Thuja occidentalis ‘Malonyana’ (Zone 4) and the lingering leaves of Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyk Gold’ (Zone 4).

But sometimes you go into the garden and find serendipitous color combinations, such as when the deep orange leaf of a Liquidambar dropped into the arms of an Abies concolor ‘Blue Cloak’ (Zone 3). Backlit by the weak winter sun, it is surely one of the season’s garden jewels.

Abies concolor, Liquidambar styraciflua

A sweetgum leaf nestles in the needles of a California white fir

A very happy new year from Form and Foliage!


Note: USDA minimum zones are provided as a guide; many factors contribute to a plant’s success, including maximum cold temperatures, humidity, summer heat (especially at night), etc. 




This rainbow doesn’t just END in gold!

landscape design, shrubs and trees

A rainbow over the foliage garden after a sun shower


Generally the winter skies in Sonoma County are the most dramatic; the low sun lighting up the clouds and sky all shades of orange and pink. We were missing them the other day when we had a bout of unsettled weather, with rain and hail followed by brilliant sunshine. The setting sun lit up the sky where it was not still covered by glowering clouds. The result was bands of brilliance alternating with deep, rich hues.

Eucalyptus globulus

That Eucalyptus is GREEN. Not this evening!

Moving in a little closer, you can see four yellow trees in the background. The two on the left are, indeed, fairly yellow in normal light. They are two cultivars of Cupressus macrocarpa, our native Monterey cypress. The one on the far left is ‘Citriodora’, the next one in is ‘Coneybearii Aurea’. They were lit up like beacons on this rainy afternoon. The yellow tree on the right is a Japanese maple called ‘Mizuho Beni’. It’s quite yellow, too, but generally doesn’t look like it has an on-off switch. What was really amazing, though, is that the Eucalyptus globulus, second in from the right, is ordinarily a solid gray-green. This afternoon’s light makes it look positively radioactive!

Parkinsonia 'Desert Museum

The near ground was in shadow, providing dramatic contrast to the fiery trees behind.

In the shot above, the Japanese maple is now on the left, in the background. You can see lots of other yellow trees back there, although none of them are yellow, they are just on fire!

Brahea armata

The other side of the rainbow ends in gold, too!

The band of gold went from horizon to horizon, wrapping the garden in brilliance.

Foliage garden

We just couldn’t get enough of this light. The trees seemed to get brighter and brighter.

So now we won’t just look for dramatic skies in winter. Spring has shown us that it can hold its own!



The Oregon Garden – A Destination Resort

conifers, mixed foliage border, evergreen shrubs

The Oregon Garden in Silverton, Oregon

A Destination Resort is one whose location and amenities make the resort itself an attraction for tourists, rather than just a spot to stay while visiting the region.  For Form and Foliage, The Oregon Garden Resort provided the best amenity of all: The Oregon Garden! And an unexpected bonus was that The Garden is open before/after hours to those staying at The Resort.  Thus, we were able to wander at will before the crowds arrived and after they had gone home, and catch the best light of the day.

evergreen foliage, mixed evergreen foliage border

A beautiful array of conifers at The Oregon Garden

We spent most of our time in the Conifer Collection, which features not just conifers tastefully planted but also a nice selection of companion plants.  The Garden was the brainchild of the Oregon Association of Nurseries as a way to showcase the State’s rich horticultural heritage.  Groundbreaking was in 1997 and the Conifer Garden was dedicated in 2000, although the plantings feel like they have been in the ground longer than the intervening 12 years (our visit was in September 2012).

Oregon Garden conifer garden

Sara is dwarfed by the Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’

The Conifer Garden has one of the largest collections of dwarf and miniature conifers in the U.S. and was created in partnership with the American Conifer Society, which provides ongoing consultation.  We hear that there are plans to double the Conifer Garden’s size so we’re calendaring a return trip!

conifers and colored foliage

Mixed foliage border at The Oregon Garden

We used The Resort as our home base while we were visiting nearby nurseries and private gardens and thus were able to see the gardens over several days.  There was no shortage of plantings to observe, and we were particularly taken with the mix of conifers and companion plants, which showcased the best attributes of both, such as the juxtaposition of the blue spruce and orange heather in the above photo.

conifers, the oregon garden, Abies amabilis 'Spreading Star'

The soft blue needles of the fir contrast beautifully with the peachy tones of the nearby plants

The same blue/orange combination (which we’ve written about before in We’ve Got the Blues) works with softer tints as well, as you can see in the above photo.  Clearly this garden was planned with an eye to both color and seasonality.

Weeping blue and upright orange combine with starry mint green for a rich combination of colors and shapes

Weeping blue and upright orange combine with starry mint green for a rich combination of colors and shapes

The planners were attentive to shape, as well, as tall weepers flow into upright ground-huggers with staccato bursts of bright foliage keeping things lively.  This garden provides many take-aways for the home gardener in design, plant selection, and plant combinations.

The Oregon Garden, conifers

This blue spruce is highlighted by the dazzling orange heather in the background

We couldn’t resist one last artsy shot of the power that the blue/orange combination provides! The color combinations in the garden go way beyond that pairing, however.  The palette encompasses many shades of greens, yellows and reds and maroon.

conifers, evergreen plants, foliage border

Orange and blue broaden into a plethora of greens and chartreuse

In the above photo the maple in the foreground tries for drama while the conifers provide a range of color, even in autumn when they are not flush with new growth. Everyone that thinks that conifers are boring should take a long look at this scene, and remember that they will look like this all winter, too…

shrub border, foliage plants

Yellows dominate in this scene from The Oregon Garden’s conifer collection

The above scene shows another side of conifer color – the ‘pop’ that yellow and gold can provide in a dreary winter landscape (see Bleak Midwinter).  The lemony yellow of the billowy weeping Chamaecyparis is picked up by the tips of the spruce on the left.  While the maroon Berberis in front and the fiery Viburnum in the rear are still in leaf there is even more garden color – in autumn.

Soft color from conifers and a peony in fall foliage

Soft color from conifers and a peony in fall foliage

One of the things that makes this garden such a pleasure to visit is the use of such a broad selection of plant material.  The fairly pedestrian peony in the above photo, which most people plant simply for the sumptuous spring flower, has raspberry-stained leaves in autumn and provides a subtle accent to the many shades – and shapes – of the surrounding conifers.

weeping beech

The conifer garden makes generous use of deciduous specimen trees

The conifers are interplanted lavishly with beautiful specimen trees, chosen for their form and foliage (see why we liked it?) The weeping purple beech above shows off the cedar in front with lovely contrast of color, shape and texture.  The tree trunks will continue to provide structure and contrast when the leaves have fallen.

The weeping purple beech dominates this scene and its form is echoed by the group of Cupressus nootkatensis behind

The weeping purple beech dominates this scene and its form is echoed by the group of Cupressus nootkatensis behind

We loved staying here at The Garden and would recommend it as a relaxing spot for anyone wanting to see a superb – and beautifully planted – conifer collection.  Even non-gardeners will find much to admire and enjoy at The Garden, and the ability to wander freely when it is closed to day visitors makes this garden experience more like staying at a private country manor than visiting a public installation.

Sunset at The Oregon Garden

We lingered in The Garden as long as it was still light enough to see!

From here we visited a private garden that has some breathtaking plantings, so stay tuned…in the meantime, take a look at The Oregon Garden and start planning your visit!


Worshipping at the Iseli Altar

conifers, winter garden, colored foliage, evergreens, Iseli Nursery

The display gardens at Iseli Nursery showcase a wide variety of conifers and companion plantings.

Conifer lovers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the display gardens at Iseli Nursery in Boring, Oregon, which are immortalized on the company’s website and annual calendars and regularly featured in at least one blog.  As part of our trek to the conifer nirvana that is the Pacific Northwest, we clearly had to pay both a call and our respects.  We were curious as to whether we would find the gardens even more awe-inspiring ‘in the fresh’ than on the page.

Sculpted pines, pines, evergreen foliage, colored foliage, Iseli Nursery

We elected to focus on contrasting colors, shapes and textures, rather than specimens.

Indeed, we were struck with such a degree of sensory overload that we had trouble focusing at first (our eyes, that is, not the camera!)  As we began to take stock of the richness that surrounded us, we realized that there were two ways to view the garden, as indeed there are any garden–by sharpening our focus to pick out the detail of each discreet specimen, a goal already ably achieved by other chroniclers, or by letting our lens go wider and take in the enormous range of textures, colors and sizes with which the gardens abound.

Rich green, Carolina blue and citrine - color-blocking is VERY 2013!

Rich green, Carolina blue and citrine – color-blocking is VERY 2013!

In the photograph above we showcase three common selections in deep hues readily available across a range of genus, species and cultivars.  Skip the taxonomy for a bit and focus on how richly satisfying this simple combination is.

Iseli Nursery, colored foliage, conifers, gold foliage, blue foliage

Add a dimension to the color by varying the textures.

In the next shot, we stick with rich colors but vary the texture of the green specimen. In this case it’s a spiky, starburst shape, but it could be weepy, spreading, lacy or bristly.

Iseli Nursery, colored foliage, conifers, pastel foliage

Color-blocking with pastels.

If you shy from the bold and prefer your colors softer, there are copious choices.  Like the master color mixer who adds a drop of black to a gallon can of paint to produce a smokier hue, plant breeders have combined with nature to create velvety gray-greens, muted yellows and olive tints to satisfy those who seek more subtle statements.

conifers, evergreens, Iseli Nursery

Soft colors create a calmer mood.

In fact, as the photo above demonstrates, a border of mixed foliage need not be strident or harsh.

Iseli Nursery, mixed foliage border, Japanese maples, evergreens, colored folaige

Deciduous plantings add an even wider range of textures and colors to the conifers.

Adding deciduous plants such as Japanese maples or dogwoods softens the look still more and expands the range of colors, shapes and textures.  The grouping above adds a formal note with the sculpted Chamaecyparis in the center.

conifers, Iseli Nusery, weeping conifers

Monochromatic doesn’t mean boring!

If you are not a fan of colored foliage, you can stick with conventional green and vary the shape. Think of yourself as a sculptor, rather than a painter, and go for a dramatic weeper flanked by a shag carpet.  Admittedly, that bronze foliage in the background does a great job of highlighting the green.

variegated dogwood, Iseli, conifers, colored foliage

Once again, we add some deciduous foliage to mix it up even more.

Note how the Cornus contriversa ‘Variegata’ adds a shape, texture and color beyond that displayed by the conifers.  We love the way this ‘living room’ is decorated with a lemon-yellow carpet and a fuzzy green hassock.

Iseli Nursery, conifers, colored foliage

A velvety swath of turf grass soothes the eye and sets off the rich colors of the specimen plantings.

We will close with one of our favorite shots – a limited palette but a wide variety of shapes, sizes and textures, including the dramatically pendulous Picea abies ‘Cobra’, on the right, one of Iseli’s newest introductions.

Next stop: Buchholz & Buchholz!


Bleak Midwinter….but wait! It doesn’t have to be! (Part II, non-Conifers)

As we noted in Part I, conifers provide the vast majority of golden winter foliage, especially in colder zones.  Anyone who thought that ‘conifer’ was synonymous with ‘Christmas tree’ should have a new idea from our photos of the numerous golden varieties lighting up the winter landscape.

Abelia ‘Kaleidoscope’ in foreground and Phormium ‘Golden Ray’ in background provide gold in winter

However, even those of us that use conifers extensively in the garden enjoy the variety of texture and shape that other plants provide, so here we share those that add a golden glow without the needles.

Phormiums add color and structure with their strappy, evergreen foliage

In USDA zones 8-10, Phormiums add color and drama to the foliage garden. Many of us have a love-hate affair with the genus, as Phormiums are the over-used, poorly maintained staples of many commercial plantings.  In addition, many grow far larger than their tags indicate and reversion to the green is deplorably common in the most attractively colored varieties.  In fact, one plantsman we know is fond of saying that if you have a colored Phormium that hasn’t reverted, you just haven’t had it long enough.

A Cryptomeria j. ‘Elegans Compacta’ is flanked by Phormium ‘Golden Ray’

Happily, a few varieties manage to transcend the sins of their relatives and perform as good garden citizens, and one is P. ‘Golden Ray’. True to its name, it provides a ray of sunshine in the winter landscape, doesn’t get enormous and, at least so far (it was first grown in the U.S. in 2006), appears to be stable.  An added benefit is that it is easy to groom, as the old blades can be tugged gently for removal, rather than requiring weaponry to dislodge them. The strappy leaves provide wonderful contrasting structure to the softer, more rounded shapes of the conifers.

Yucca ‘Walbristar’, aka Bright Star, adds a burst of color to the winter landscape

Yuccas also add sunshine to the winter garden, with structure similar to Phormiums.  They are related, although not as closely as they were once thought to be, when both were in the Agave family.  Phormiums have recently been moved into a family of their own.  Yuccas come in a variety of greens and golds, and our favorite is ‘Walbristar’, patented and sold in the U.S. as Bright Star.

Yucca ‘Walbristar’ (aka Bright Star) close up in winter sunlight

In summer Bright Star is crisply green and gold, but colder winter temperatures bring out a pink blush.  It is a strikingly beautiful plant. Pam Pennick, of Digging, reports from Zone 8b that “‘Color Guard’ yucca looks great year round and is a nice medium size that doesn’t try to swallow a garden.”  She also likes ‘Bright Edge’ and we love ‘Tiny Star’.

Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’ is a broad-leaved evergreen with golden variegated foliage

If grass-like leaves are not to your liking, or your winter temperatures are too low for Phormiums and Yuccas, Abelia Kaleidoscope is a wonderful choice.  This A. grandiflora variety is much more compact than the species and has buttery golden winter foliage with highlights of red, orange and chartreuse.  It grows beautifully in Zone 9b and is evergreen to Zone 7.  This is one of our favorite shrubs year-round, and it can take full summer sun here without burning.  The shadier the spot the greener it grows, so for maximum sunshine in winter, plant it in full sun or under a deciduous tree.

Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’ paired with Coprosma ‘Evening Glow’ and Euphorbia c. wulfenii

See how well ‘Kaleidoscope’ pairs with greens and reds?  Its compact form means low maintenance, although it can withstand shearing if it gets rangy.

Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ has lovely variegated foliage but really pulls its weight in winter with its bare stems

We read a lot about red-twigged dogwoods and don’t understand why their yellow brethren don’t get more respect – or attention.  Yellow-twigged varieties such as C. ‘Silver and Gold’ and C. ‘Flaviramea’ glow with golden intensity like so many high-wattage filaments in the winter landscape.  Much as we love it, we don’t plant a lot of it: the yellow color is brightest on the youngest wood, which means that yearly pruning of older branches is necessary to keep it glowing.

Libertia ixiodes ‘Goldfiinger’ is our favorite golden grass-like plant

We’ve even prospected for gold amongst the grass-like plants and found Libertia, which is woefully underused, given its attributes.  Not a true grass but a member of the Iris family, Liberta is evergreen, low maintenance and drought-tolerant in Zones 7-10.  There are several varieties – we’ve used L. ixiodes ‘Goldfinger’ and L. peregrinans.

Try Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox Argentea’ for its shiny, golden variegated leaves

This small specimen of Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ shows off its golden new foliage

There are also variegated hollies or holly-look-alikes.  Try Ilex ‘Ferox Argentea’ or Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’.  Both supposedly grow to Zone 6.  Their shiny, toothy leaves add structure year-round but their golden variegation is most appreciated in winter on cloudy days.

Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ glows golden in winter, here interplanted with S. spurium ‘Voodoo’

For those of you in the coldest zones, Sedum ‘Angelina’ is hardy to -40° F.  We’d call it chartreuse in summer, but in fall and winter it takes on a ruddy hue and shines gold from underneath shrubs or across open spaces.  Be careful about adding ‘Angelina’ willy-nilly; it roots seemingly overnight and some may consider it invasive.  If you use drip irrigation, it won’t take hold where there is no water.

Meyer lemon fruit – a cross between lemon and orange gives this fruit a golden tone

And finally, even though we’re cheating by including this on a foliage blog, what would the winter landscape be in California without citrus?  Meyer lemon (Citrus limon ‘Meyer Improved’) is the only citrus that we can reliably grow here in 9b, and it supposedly grows in Zone 8.  The golden fruit add ornamentation to the winter landscape, with the added bonus that you can use them in baking, juices, etc.

Doesn’t this make you want to go for the gold?

Copyright 2012 by Form and Foliage


Bleak Midwinter…but wait! It doesn’t have to be! (Part I, Conifers)

The subject of the winter garden has attracted numerous writers, including such luminaries as Rosemary Verey and Val Bourne.  While their books abound with beautiful photographs of snow-laden boughs and ice-encased berries, they tend not to get at the heart of the winter garden’s real bugaboo: drabness.

The Golden Glow Awards go to Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora’ and Thuja plicata ‘Sunshine’

Fresh snowfalls are lovely sights, with the world encased in forgiving white.  And it is a rare gardener, indeed, who secretly doesn’t appreciate the fairytale magnificence of a good ice storm, even while bemoaning the damage done to trees and woody shrubs.  For sheer beauty, ice is hard to beat.

Admittedly, gardening in Northern California does not subject me to the degree of grayness that other parts of the country endure in winter, but I did my time in New Jersey and, far worse, Poughkeepsie, NY.  Jan grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which is famous for its cloudy days, which can sometimes drag into weeks.

Golden chamaecyparis light up this Bellingham, Washington garden in winter

So for all that berries, bark, dried seed heads and the like add interest to the winter garden, what trumps all of them?  Gold!  Make sure that your garden has at least one golden evergreen shrub or tree to provide sunshine on dreary days.

See how the golden Thuja (‘Malonyana Aurea’) immediately draws your eye

Most golden evergreens are conifers, and there is a seemingly endless array of choices.  Those that follow are selections that we have grown and know well; there are many, many others, so use these as suggestions and explore the available offerings in your area.  We have tried to include a little something for everyone: large and small, upright and weeping, bold and demure.  Many of our choices will grow in zones with much colder winters than our Zone 9b.

Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora’ is a beacon on a cloudy winter day

The most brilliant winter beacon in the garden is the citriodora Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Citriodora’, at least for now – it’s in the process of being reclassified), which has not only dramatic color but also strongly lemon-scented foliage.  ‘Citriodora’ gets quite large, however – up to 30’ tall – and is a rapid grower by conifer standards.  So, it may not be suitable for every garden.  It can tolerate winter temperatures down to about 15°F and in hotter areas does better with a bit of shade in summer.

Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Saligna Aurea’ is one of the most delicate full-sized golden conifers

If you prefer a weeping habit, nothing is as graceful as the golden weeping Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Saligna Aurea’).  ‘Saligna Aurea’ is another lemon-scented specimen, with delicate, cascading thread-like foliage.  You can stake it to the desired height and then allow it to weep at will.  ‘Saligna Aurea’ is a stunning specimen planting and can handle center stage with practically no supporting cast.  However it also works well when surrounded by complimentary foliage colors.  It is hardy to zero°F and can tolerate full sun if it gets enough water, otherwise give it a little afternoon shade.

Thuja plicata ‘Sunshine’ is aptly named; it adds solar power to your landscape

Another breathtaking golden specimen, that takes on an orangey cast in winter, is the sunshine Western red cedar (Thuja plicata ‘Sunshine’). ‘Sunshine’ tolerates colder temperatures (zone 5), and does not burn in full sun.  It lights up the garden on cloudy days and when caught by the weak winter sun appears to spontaneously combust.  ‘Sunshine’ is another large specimen, ultimately even larger than ‘Citriodora’, but slower growing.

Pinus zebrina ‘Wallichiana’ glows softly on a cloudy day in winter

Another glorious yellow tree is Pinus wallichiana ‘Zebrina’.  ‘Zebrina’ has long, drooping needles in groups of five, striped green and yellow for dramatic effect.  It grows in full sun to zone 6, and its yellow color is more pronounced in winter.  There is no plant for brightening up a cloudy day like ‘Zebrina’, and she does it so gracefully.

Thuja ‘Malonyana Aurea’s maize foliage is echoed in the frosting on Juniperus communis ‘Gold Cone’ (in front)

What if you don’t have the space for one of these behemoths?  There are some lovely, smaller choices that can squeeze into almost any garden.  A golden variety of the American arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis ‘Malonyana Aurea’ is daintily columnar, generally not exceeding 10’ tall.  With such a slender growth habit, it fits nicely into a mixed border or bed.  Don’t let its apparent daintiness fool you, however; ‘Malonyana Aurea’ can withstand the tough winters of zone 3, yet also grows happily in zone 9.

Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Lemon Thread’ provides a softer glow than some of the other choices

Another toughie (zone 4) is ‘Lemon Thread’ Japanese false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera ‘Lemon Thread’), which has a graceful, upright habit with softly arching branches.  Lemon yellow rather than brilliant gold, it provides a softer glow than some of the other choices.  Very slow growing to 3-5’ tall and wide.

Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Goden Mops’ is finely textured garden spun gold

Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Mops’ is a close relation that has golden-yellow mop-like stems and a weeping habit and is another slow grower, maturing at about 5’ tall and a bit wider.  This variety will hold its golden color through the summer if it gets full sun, although then you have to watch out for winter burn if you’re in a cold zone (this one can grow as low as zone 4).  Try planting it with some protection on the south side.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Kojolko hiba’ is a golden dwarf with lacy foliage

If you want a true dwarf, try Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Kojolko hiba’, which stays under 2’ tall and has a spreading habit.  Its lacy foliage is bright gold.  We find it does better here with a bit of shade, and holds its color in the shade, (unlike C. obtusa ‘Gold Fern’ which is lovely but very green in shade.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Mariesii’ is a dwarf and its gold is 24-karat

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Mariesii’ is also a dwarf, and grows in either sun or light shade.  More sun brings out more gold; if grown in shade it has white frosting.  ‘Mariesii’ is spreading when young but will become more upright.  You can trim the leader to keep its shape lower.

Pinus wallichiana ‘Zebrina’ with two Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Golden King’ on a misty winter morning

The most asked-about plant in the garden has to be the Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Golden King’, a bicolor specimen whose dark bluish green foliage is frosted with deep, bold yellow.  While this plant can get quite large eventually, that isn’t likely to trouble anyone who plants it, as it is extremely slow growing.  It can also be pruned gently.

Juniperus conferta ‘All Gold’ is a dazzling groundcover

And finally, how could we not mention at least one ground cover conifer?  While we have and love Juniperus ‘Golden Wiltonii’, it just doesn’t pack the punch of J. conferta ‘All Gold’, which glows across the garden with a chartreuse-gold intensity that is hard to beat.  Can take full sun and extreme heat (supposedly over 100°F with no problems) and makes a great skirt for deep green foliage.

We invite anyone with a favorite golden evergreen conifer that we didn’t mention to nominate a favorite.

And, there are wonderful golden evergreen plants that are not conifers.  Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon!

Copyright 2012 by Form and Foliage