Evergreens that liven up a drab winter landscape

Some great evergreens for the landscape, including a pine that isn't a pine and a fir that isn't a fir.

Photos courtesy of Donna Williamson
Spruce needles can be prickly.
Photos courtesy of Donna Williamson
The thunderhead pine has two needles per bundle and is attractive in many landscapes.
Photos courtesy of Donna Williamson
Needles on firs have two white lines on the underside and are usually not as prickly as spruce needles.
Photos courtesy of Donna Williamson
The umbrella pine isn’t a pine, but it’s a great evergreen for many landscapes. Its needles feel like plastic.

Winter presents a wonderful opportunity to learn about the wide world of evergreens. To some, everything in a needled evergreen is a “Christmas tree.” But to take a winter walk and explore the plants that don’t shed their leaves in fall can be fascinating.

While I am not a conifer expert, I am a fan. And as a landscape designer, I want to choose trees that will thrive when planted in a specific landscape and will provide the right silhouette and character.

Pines (Pinus spp.) have needles that are arranged in bundles along the stem. White pines have five needles per bundle and, as a result, look soft and full. Black pines are two-needles per bundle pines, and their character is different. They look distinct, more detailed, and more tufted.

Spruces (Picea spp.) have shorter, stiff needles that come right off the branch. In most varieties, the flat needles are the same color front and back.

Many firs (Abies spp.) could be confused for spruces. The needles are arranged all around the branch, but not as stiff, and most firs have a double white stripe down the sides of the needle on the underside.

There is a wonderful conifer called the umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) that isn't a pine but is in the same family as the huge redwoods in California. The umbrella pine has long, dark-green needles borne on umbrellalike clusters. They feel like plastic. The tree is wonderful. well worth your attention.

The last of this week’s group is the China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata). Actually not a fir but in the same family as the umbrella pine, this tree has sharp, flat needles. The needles are arranged in a spiral around the branch and have two white lines on the underside. Sadly not used very often in landscapes, the China fir is more tolerant of hot, humid summers than any of the real firs, which mostly like it cool.

There's a "slide show" of needle evergreen photos at the top of the page. Click through from one to the next (at the bottom right of each image) to see the variety of these interesting species.

Donna Williamson is one of eight garden writers who blog weekly at Diggin' It. She's a master gardener, garden designer, and garden coach. She has taught gardening and design classes at the State Arboretum of Virginia, Oatlands in Leesburg, and Shenandoah University. She’s also the founder and editor of Grandiflora Mid-Atlantic Gardening magazine, and the author of “The Virginia Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Low Maintenance Gardening in Virginia.” She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

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