Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Gold-Needled Umbrella Pine

No garden where umbrella pine is hardy should be without one. The conifer’s unique quill-like needles, and their striking array at the tips of bare stems—looking like the spokes of an umbrella—are a tactical & visual thrill.

 

Sciadopitys verticillata Gold Star 120718 hand 915

 

The brightly-hued needles of Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Gold Star’ ramp up this species' visual desirability even more. Sciadopitys also has some conceptual thrills. First, the species is present in fossils up to 230 millions years old. Why change a good thing?

 

Next, those remarkable needles aren’t the tree’s true leaves, although they function as such. Those are the little brown scale-like bumps on the “handle” of each little umbrella.

 

Sciadopitys verticillata Gold Star 120718 leaves 915 closer

 

The quill-needles are actually modified flat sections of stem that are specialized for photosynthesis, and are known as cladodes.  

 

Sciadopitys verticillata Gold Star 120718 showing stem whorl umbrella 915 closer

 

You’ve seen zillions of cladodes already: True leaves of all cacti are ephemeral or, like those of Sciadopitys, lacking in chlorophyll. Again, like Sciadopitys, all cacti photosynthesize thanks to their green cladodes: their cactus pads.

 

 

 

Here's how to grow gold umbrella pine:

 

Latin Name

Sciadopitys verticillata 'Gold Star'

Common Name

Gold-needled umbrella pine

Family

Sciatopityaceae, the Umbrella Pine family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen conifer.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 7, but reported to thrive in the high heat of Zone 7 only in high dappled conifer shade. Best in Zones 5 and 6. 

Habit

Upright and pyramidal in youth, broadening with age.

Rate of Growth

Slow.

Size in ten years

Four to five feet.

Texture

Dense when young, more open with age. The contrasting open texture of the "umbrella" stem-and-needle details is an intriguing contrast with that overall density.

Grown for

its unique foliage: The actual needles of this conifer are unshowily small and scale-like, and are distributed up and down the portions of stem between the whorls of thick, soft, quill-like jobs, known as cladodes, that function as its photosynthesizing elements. Cladodes are modified stems, not true leaves. (Cactus pads are cladodes, too.) Cladodes of Gold Star are soft gold, and are in striking contrast to the handsome green ones of those of the straight species.

 

The “umbrella” descriptor arises from the array of the needles in whorls at the tips of otherwise-bare branches. (Verticillata means whorled.) The impression is, indeed, of the spokes and handle of an umbrella. The overall habit of the trees, though, is broadly pyramidal, and nothing like that of the other pine commonly named umbrella pine, Pinus pinea, whose overall habit is of a cloud of foliage canopy atop a straight trunk.

 

its rarity: The only cultivar of Sciadopitys that is generally available is Winter Green, whose cladodes maintain a better green color in cold weather. Other cultivars vary dramatically in foliage color or overall habit—see “Variants,” below—but are unaccountably uncommon in the trade. This makes any that you do find all the more desirable.

 

its deer resistance: Despite the soft juiciness of the cladodes, they are not normally browsed by deer.

 

its cones: Female trees produce attractive cones at the tips of their branches. They are two to four inches long, with unusually thick, chunky-looking scales.

Flowering season

Early Spring. Here in southern New England, that means April. The flowers aren't showy.

Color combinations

Gold Star could associate stylishly with almost any color, from pink and pastels to fiery oranges and reds. Its glow would be particularly showy in front of dark-foliaged backgrounders; see “Plant partners,” below. 

Partner plants

Gold Star's brightness, upright habit, year-round interest, and unique foliar texture should strongly inform your choices for companion plants.

 

—Ideally, the context for the tree should be supportive year-round. The tree won't help save a garden that is otherwise bleak and bare in the winter; it will only call attention to such deficits, not make up for them.

 

—Include as strong a component of dark evergreen foliage nearby as possible. Needle evergreens will be inherently somewhat duplicative, regardless that the needles of Sciatopitys are extraordinarily thick. Instead, think of broadleaves. At the back, large hollies (Ilex crenata 'Steeds', Ilex opaca, Ilex 'Nellie R. Stevens'), cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus 'Schipkaensis') or southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) would be thrilling. If you can contain its spread securely, tall bamboos (Phyllostachys) would be even more unusual. At the sides, medium to more compact forms of whichever Ilex, PrunusMagnolia, or well-contained bamboo isn't at the back; at the front, still more compact forms ditto. Other evergreen fronters include Sarcococca, Helleborus, Pachysandra, and Berberis replicata

 

Deciduous woodies can work, as well, particularly if their foliage is as much of an asset in the warm months as their bare branches are in the cold. Variegated siberian dogwood in either red or yellow-barked forms would be sensational. What about either dwarf purple-leaved beech, Fagus sylvatica 'Purpurea Nana' or the dwarf purple-leaved redbud, Cercis canadensis 'Merlot'?

 

Although they don't have winter presence, hostas are irresistible. My vote would be for either one of the large-scale giant-leaved forms, such as Empress Wu, or one of the brightest-variegated ones, such as Liberty.

 

It's safest to avoid companions whose foliage is also gold: Either they or the Gold Star would be liable to look second-best in comparision. 

Where to use it in your garden

Gold Star is a specimen—a star—that would be insulted by placement that is anything less than prominent. Its unusually colorful foliage and texture can’t help but draw attention, so be sure that such a steady and focused gaze is warranted not just on Gold Star itself, but on its surroundings.  

 

Because the tree is especially prominent in the winter, (especially in Zones 6 and 5, when the deciduous material that predominates in plants that hardy is leafless and, usually, messily uninteresting), do what you can to provide a simple, clean-lined and, ideally, dark-green background.

 

Sciadopitys normally neither welcomes nor needs pruning, and should usually be left to grow to its free-range size; see “Quirks,” below. Plant only where there will always been enough room—or consider the adventurous training in the second "How to Handle It" box, below.

 

Because Sciadopitys is typically deer-resistant, it can be sited  in the distance in areas of larger properties that might not be practical to deer-fence. The lively color of Gold Star is quite effective from afar, so it could be part of a focal group way out in meadow acreage. 

 

All-green umbrella pines enjoy full sun, but if you aren’t confident that the soil at your chosen site can provide even moisture all summer long, or can’t commit to supplemental watering during droughts, consider providing, either, high dappled shade by mid-day, or full shade by mid-afternoon. The goal is to protect this cultivar's pale needles from excessive drought as well as unduly-intense sun, either of which could scorch them. In my experience, in soil of normal depth and moisture retentiveness, all forms of Sciadopitys welcome full sun in Zones 6 and 5.  

 

In general, then, Sciadopitys is not the tree to use when conditions are challenging. If you’d like a gold-foliaged evergreen where soil can become dry, choose a juniper, pine, or spruce.  

 

See “Plant partners,” above.

Culture

Sciadopitys requires soil of normal moisture-retentiveness, depth, and ability to drain. Do not plant, either, where drainage is poor or where the soil can become dry during the dog days of summer, lest the pale cladodes scorch.

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant in spring or fall, ensuring enough water for establishment. In the naturally-supportive conditions that are the due of this species and its cultivars, supplemental watering after establishment shouldn’t be needed.  

Formative pruning isn’t needed, either. Longer-term, if your climate brings heavy snows, you may need to prune away an occasional storm-damaged limb in early spring. Sciadopitys can produce multiple trunks; because any one of of them will have foliage only on a pie-shaped segment of its circumference, the tree can become splayed open by heavy snow or ice. If you are growing a specimen from youth, review it every couple of years to prune any emergent accessory trunks to the ground. If your property already has a mature multi-trunked specimen, consider having it cabled.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Because Sciadopitys is normally best when allowed to grow free-range—see “Quirks,” below, and “Where to use it,” above— it is usually only by mistake or thoughtless limbing up to increase necessary pathway access that the tree’s handsome trunk is revealed. If you are fortunate in terms of youth, ambition, and available space, though, you could plant a grove of Sciadopitys so that their natural tendency to shade out lower limbs will reveal their trunks organically.

 

For this not to look like a mistake—a “sticking in” of a bunch of young trees that you then forgot to relocate with proper spacing—choose a defined space that is intentionally focal. A sunny-enough courtyard, a large planting island in the middle of paving, or a series of three-to-five-member groves flanking a woodland walkway. Underplant from the start with low shade-tolerant evergreens, so it’s clear that the overall combination is a strategy, not an accident. See “Plant partners,” above. In ten or twenty years, your creative audacity will begin to prove itself.

 

Sciadopitys is normally grown—happily—with no formative or maintenance pruning, decade after decade. But its flexible stems, usually-hidden bark and trunk, and sui generis foliage texture make it a startling but stunning candidate for espaliering. Fan young stems gently against a sturdy frame, at angles that aren't radically lower from vertical than their normal tendency: With a species this slow-growing, the comparative eagerness of near-vertical growth is to be embraced; tying stems more toward horizontality will slow their growth even as it encourages dormant side-stems to become active. Given this species' slow growth and longevity, ensure that the frame is as durable as the tree itself.

 

In ten years or so, my Gold Star espalier may be ready for photography, with its trunks and limbs unusually well displayed amid tufts of foliage. Stay tuned.

Quirks and special cases

Sciadopitys doesn’t welcome or require formative pruning to encourage density or limit overall size. The intriguing texture of the whorls of cladodes at the tips of bare sections of stem is only appealing when noticeable; tip-pruning would encourage density that would reduce that visibility. 

 

Further, although the bark of exposed trunks is attractive, the trees overall look best when the cladode canopy extends down as close to the ground as possible—which means that the trunks are usually not well displayed. It isn’t responsible stewardship to plant Sciadopitys with the thought of limbing-up merely to retain, say, clearance for a nearby walkway. 

 

Sciadopitys should be sited only where there is room for its maximum mature dimensions. If your space isn’t large enough for any of the full-sized cultivars, consider the narrower Joe Kozey, or the compact or dwarf forms. See "Variants," below

Downsides

Sciadopitys is slow-growing, and the unusual forms such as Gold Star are often available only as small starter plants a foot or two high. From such diminutive beginnings, a walk-through, walk-under grove of Gold Star as in the second "How to handle it" box, above, would be the achievement of a long lifetime—or the achievement you savor after the creator's lifetime was long past.

Variants

There are a number but, with the exception of Winter Green, they are rarely available. They include Aurea, whose lime-green cladodes are distinctly lighter than those of the species, but not as bright as those of Gold Star.

 

Growth of Fasciation (note the spelling, which derives from “fasciated,” not “fascinated”) is slow, and the plants remain compact. The cladodes sometimes emerge fused together—i.e., fasciated. The green cladodes of Fireworks are tipped with yellow. The green cladodes of Green Star are shorter than normal. The lowest quarters of the lengths of the yellow cladodes of Goldhammer are green.

 

The cladodes of Joe Kozey are green, but the overall habit is distinctly narrow because the branches grow more upright than outward and, so, remain close to the trunk. Cladodes of Ossorio’s Gold seem similar to those of Gold Star. The all-green growth of Picola and Ritchie’s Dwarf is so congested and slow that these trees remain small enough for the front of rock gardens. Perhaps rarest of all is Pendula, whose trunks are upright but whose branches weep.

 

On my bucket list would be one of the rock-garden cultivars and, planted in groups, the spire-like Joe Kozey.

Availability

Often scarce; this peerless retail nursery lists a remarkable number. I purchased my Gold Star from O'Brien Hostas, which, despite that name, also has a remarkable breadth of sophisticated inventory far outside of hostas.

Propagation

By cuttings as well as by grafting.

Native habitat

Sciadopitys verticillata is native to Japan. 

 
 
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