Chameleon Conifers

A frosty view across the pinetum

While most of the trees being decorated this Christmas will be evergreen conifers, there are some great, garden-worthy conifers that transform their foliage colour in the autumn and return back to green in the spring. There are those too that shed their foliage altogether.

Cryptomeria japonica in the Pinetum at Nymans
Cryptomeria japonica in the Pinetum at Nymans

Colourful Conifers

Cryptomeria japonica, or Japanese Red Cedar, provides a wealth of cultivars, some of whose foliage take on rich purple shades over the winter bringing a new element of interest to the garden.

At Nymans we have a form of Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Group’ in the Pinetum which colours reliably every winter. This makes a small tree, but in limited space ‘Elegans Compacta’ or ‘Elegans Nana’ might be more appropriate. Crytomeria japonica ‘Vilmoriniana’ is another good smaller form.

Chaemacyparis thyoides Ericoides in the Pinetum at Nymans
Chaemacyparis thyoides Ericoides in the Pinetum at Nymans

White Cypress

Chaemacyparis thyoides ‘Ericoides’ is a smaller, slow-growing, form of white cypress that we also have in the Pinetum at Nymans, but would make an ideal specimen to grow among heathers. ‘Ericoides’ means like an Erica which is a genus of heather and this conifer provides the same foliage texture but would also provide contrasting height as well as its bronze-purple winter coat.

Microbiota decussata at Nymans
Microbiota decussata at Nymans

Ground cover

To sprawl over a bank or large rock garden Microbiota decussata is a good option. With a prostrate habit it makes a vigorous ground cover that bronzes up nicely in the winter but can smother it’s neighbours if you’re not careful. 

Metasequoia glyptostroboides at Nymans
Metasequoia glyptostroboides at Nymans

Dawn Redwood

Best admired in parks and public gardens are the larger deciduous conifers.  Metasequoia glyptostroboides better known as the Dawn Redwood is an enormous tree which sheds it’s leaves in the autumn leaving a wonderfully feathered winter silhouette.

Taxodium distichum in the Pinetum
Taxodium distichum in the Pinetum

Swamp Cypress

Taxodium distichum or swamp cypress loses its leaves in winter, but not before they turn a rich rusty brown. Ideally grown adjacent to water, as they do in the wild, they’ll produce aerial roots (‘knees’) rather like woody stalagmites. The picture above shows two swamp cypress - one having shed its foliage and the other still a vibrant autumn colour.