Oh Christmas Tree...

The lights, the smells, the excitement; this time of year is certainly special. Battling crowds for that perfect gift, bundling up to combat the chill, and searching for that perfect Christmas tree; the holiday season holds a special place in most people’s hearts, and I am no different.

Whenever I think about gardening, and the plants that I love, I know this time of year played a critical role.

Between the ever present mix of firs, my father would make sure he grabbed a ball and burlap spruce tree from time to time. The first specimen tree ever planted on the expanse of land, which is now the home of Gibson Gardens, was one of those spruce trees (Picea abies). 30 years later, watching the power company butcher that first tree, my heart broke.

Sure, there are several others dotted across the acreage, and there have been others that haven’t fared very well and died of ‘natural causes’. But watching that first tree stretch up and out every year was nothing short of magical. However, staring at the stump, and the saprophytes which happily fed on the decaying remains-

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-I realized my father had made some common errors.

There are a few things to think about before you fall in love with the pyramidal form of a spruce tree.

Picea abies requires that you follow one of the core tenets of tree planting: “Right tree in the right place.” The species Picea abies, or the Norway Spruce, as it is commonly known, is capable of becoming nothing short of a monster in the landscape. Growing up to three feet a year, that cute little Christmas tree, can quickly turn into a sprawling, coniferous monstrosity. Two trees that are in the Gibson Gardens arboretum, have been in the landscape for around fifteen years. They are both well over twenty feet.

This Picea abies seems to be increasing its growth rate as it approaches the fifteen year mark.

This Picea abies seems to be increasing its growth rate as it approaches the fifteen year mark.

Though its form is slightly different than the previous Norway Spruce, its growth rate definitely matches it.

On top of the fact that this tree grows at an incredible rate, it also is susceptible to diseases in our NC zone 7 humidity. Root rots can often lead to defoliation and general decline.

But, if you are like me, and you absolutely must have a taste of Christmas in your landscape, or you’ve been bitten by the conifer bug, there are much better options for smaller yards and landscapes.

Thanks to Picea abies having an extremely diverse gene pool, many new cultivars (cultivated varieties) are produced with regularity. A lot of these varieties are dwarfs, which are more suitable for the home landscape. Growing mere inches a year, as opposed to feet, they will stay nice and compact for years to come. Throw in interesting forms and colors, and you can enjoy year round interest. A few that are growing here that I enjoy in no particular order are:

Picea abies ‘Pumilia Nigra’

Picea abies ‘Pumilia Nigra’

Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’.

Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’.

Picea abies ‘Tompa’

Picea abies ‘Tompa’

If you aren’t looking for a dwarf variety, and prefer a conical shape, there are no shortage of other options. In fact, there are two spruce species that are much better suited to the heat and humidity of the southeastern zone 7 climate.

The first is the Picea omorika (The Serbian Spruce). This spruce has a much more narrow form than the huge Norway. They tuck in to narrow spots wonderfully, can handle partial shade, enjoy moist feet, and cope very well with clay soils. All of these factors combine to make a conifer well suited to the piedmont of NC. Throw in the fact that many cultivars sport extremely beautiful foliage, and you have a recipe for an extremely versatile tree.

This Picea omorika ‘Aurea’ was purchased as a scraggly 5 foot sapling, but will quickly turn into a narrow beauty. It’s foliage is nothing short of breath taking.

This Picea omorika ‘Aurea’ was purchased as a scraggly 5 foot sapling, but will quickly turn into a narrow beauty. It’s foliage is nothing short of breath taking.

Its foliage is tipped with yellow, and has a hard to capture blue undertone.

Its foliage is tipped with yellow, and has a hard to capture blue undertone.

This Picea omorika ‘Bruns’ has a beautiful, narrow conical shape already, and its aqua foliage has a silvery underside. The dual toned foliage seems to make it shimmer in the sunlight.

This Picea omorika ‘Bruns’ has a beautiful, narrow conical shape already, and its aqua foliage has a silvery underside. The dual toned foliage seems to make it shimmer in the sunlight.

Though this Picea omorika ‘Nana’ is a globe shape right now. It will slowly turn into a broad 10 foot tall cone. It also has beautiful two toned foliage.

Though this Picea omorika ‘Nana’ is a globe shape right now. It will slowly turn into a broad 10 foot tall cone. It also has beautiful two toned foliage.

The foliage of Picea omorika ‘Nana’

The foliage of Picea omorika ‘Nana’

Another option well suited to our climate, is Picea orientalis (the Oriental or Caucasian Spruce). It has the shortest needles of any spruce, and can handle more shade than most of these sun lovers. It also has a much more narrow footprint than the Norway. Its cultivars come in wide variety of colors and forms, however Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ seems to be popping up more and more at local nurseries.

It is easy to see why Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ is exploding in popularity.

It is easy to see why Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ is exploding in popularity.

This little 2 gallon Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ is already beginning to sport the almost neon yellow the cultivar is known for.

This little 2 gallon Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ is already beginning to sport the almost neon yellow the cultivar is known for.

So, if you need to fill a conifer fix, have a spot in need of some come colorful year round foliage, or just want to place an interesting specimen in your yard; do not discount Picea. Sure there are monsters present in this family of trees, but there are also a wide variety of options that are available through specialty nurseries. Here at Gibson Gardens we will continue to preach the gospel of conifers, and the beautiful structure they can provide for your landscape. As long as you consider the long term growth possibilities that these species, and plant accordingly, they can become beacons of interest for generations.



















Stephen Gibson