A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

In the Garden Now: The Conifer Slope in Winter

Charles Day is Wave Hill’s Ruth Rea Howell Senior Horticultural Interpreter.

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Conifers have a quiet dignity about them, as suggested in the first photo, taken by Ngoc Minh Ngo for the recent Timber Press publication Nature into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill. They appear to be less busy than many broad-leaved trees. Perhaps their soft-looking foliage has a similarity to the fur of a much loved childhood toy—or maybe it’s just that their leaves don’t flutter so much in the wind? For whatever reason, a walk among conifers has a calming effect and a winter stroll around our Conifer Slope is a restful experience.

Specimen conifers, backed by a row of mature Norway spruces (Picea abies)

Specimen conifers, backed by a row of mature Norway spruces (Picea abies)

In the 1930s, when Wave Hill was still a private estate, a row of Norway spruces (Picea abies) was planted to mark the northern property line. They still stand today, and provide some protection from the cold winter winds that stream down the river from the north.

In more recent decades, other specimen trees have been planted in this sheltered area and we now have a diverse collection. Indeed, conifers come in many shapes and sizes and with much variation in their foliage.

On the right, pine (Pinus); and the left, spruce (Picea)

On the right, pine (Pinus); and the left, spruce (Picea)

Needle-like leaves are typical of many conifers, including pines (Pinus), spruces (Picea) and firs (Abies). Those of the pines are clustered in bundles of two, three or five—as is our example above—while the spruces and firs have needles that are held individually.

Other conifers have more scale-like foliage. Cypresses (Cupressus), false cypresses (Chamaecyparis), arborvitae (Thuja) and the false arborvitae (Thujopsis dolobrata) all come in this category.

False arborvitae (Thujopsis dolobrata)

False arborvitae (Thujopsis dolobrata)

There are contrasts in foliage color, too. Dark, glossy greens predominate but there are many variations. For example, the false arborvitae has bronzy-tipped leaves—and, more surprisingly, silvery undersides. Several trees have glaucous (blue-gray) foliage, including a Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris ‘Mount Vernon Blue’), two of our China firs (Cunninghamia lanceolata ‘Glauca’) and even the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Hazel Smith’).

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris 'Mount Vernon Blue')

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris ‘Mount Vernon Blue’)

Gold tints predominate in a group of smaller trees near the upper end of the slope. A fine, creamy-yellow-tipped cultivar of the oriental spruce (Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’) is neighbors with a couple of yellow-splashed hinoki false cypresses (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’).

Oriental spruce (Picea orientalis 'Skylands') and hinoki false cypresses (Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Crippsii'

Oriental spruce (Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’) and hinoki false cypresses (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’

Bark is another feature that varies according to species. That of the umbrella form of the Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’) is a handsome orangey-red while the aptly-named alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana ‘McFetters’) does have a decidedly reptilian quality about it.

On the right, Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’); on the left, Alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana 'McFetters')

On the right, Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’); on the left, Alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana ‘McFetters’)

Although there are many types of conifer, what unites them is that they all bear cones. Female cones are woody structures that contain seeds when they are fully mature. Less noticeable are the much smaller male cones. These develop in spring or early summer and release clouds of windborne pollen.

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