Oct 27, 2022

Plant Profile: Conifers

Large conifer bush behind a low brick wall

Conifers are cone-bearing plants that can provide drama in the garden by their range in shape and size. Due to this region’s heavy clay soils and hot summer nights, a limited number of cultivars can survive in the Mid-South. The southeastern United States is known for its large number of broadleaf evergreens, but needled evergreens do better in Memphis.

Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara) and the Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica) prefer good drainage and can be fairly drought-tolerant once established. These species have sweeping branches, upright combs, needle clusters and can grow over 100 feet tall. For smaller gardens, Horstmann Cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Horstmann’) is a more compact option. After ten years, a Horstmann Cedar at the Dixon has grown around ten feet tall and twelve feet wide without supplemental irrigation.

Other cultivars include the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’), a weeping form common in the nursery trade that has rope-like stems which can be trained in a myriad of forms. With adequate sun, the Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), a conifer which is not a true cedar can grow tall. It has a pleasing conical shape and soft branches. The cultivar ‘Yoshino’ grows to 30-40 feet and works as a large screen at the entrance to the Dixon property.

There are around 200 cultivars of Japanese Cedar worldwide. Some forms are short and round like Cryptomeria japonica ‘Globosa Nana,’ or shrub form like ‘Black Dragon.’ Both are easy to grow in the Mid-South. The Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is native to eastern Tennessee and performs best in the Memphis shade. In eastern Tennessee, it has been plagued by the woolly adelgid, but so far, the Mid-South has not had an issue with this pest because of the geographical isolation from the native populations. Picea orientalis has the perfect conical shape and is a great performer for the region. There are many cultivars, diverse in size and color. The largest can grow 60 feet in the wild. The weeping Alaskan Cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’) plant creates a great focal point in the garden. With expressive drooping branches, the plant can do very well here with protection from the western sun, in well-draining, rich soil.

Conifers can create an interesting contrast to broadleaf evergreens and azaleas in a garden. To learn more about the easy to care for conifer, reference Landscaping with Conifers and Gingko for the Southeast, a 2013 publication by John Ruter and Thomas Cox.