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Plant Profiles

Whip-cord Cryptomeria in Winter

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Cold weather can be just what's needed for some plants to change the color of their foliage from green to something altogether more startling.  How about the hues of this conifer?  Ebony, burgundy, and rust: quite a warm palette for Winter.   

 

Cryptomeria japonica 'Araucarioides' is usually extolled for its narrow branches and sparse twigs.  Why not its startling cold-weather coloring?  By late Fall, the green-blue needles of Summer—pleasant but not striking—have darkened dramatically.

 

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The bush is very slender in youth, but branches out to solid bushiness in adolescence.  The youngster below is already starting to plump up.

 

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See below for strategies to keep ths whipcord Cryptomeria looking wonderful year-round, year after year.

 

 

Here's how to grow this unusual conifer:


Latin Name

Cryptomeria japonica 'Araucarioides'

Common Name

Whip-cord Cryptomeria

Family

Cupressaceae, the Cypress family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen conifer.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 8.

Habit

Single-trunked and broadly-upright.  Very open and narrow when young, but soon becoming wider, denser, and more irregular.

Rate of Growth

Medium. 

Size in ten years

Six to ten feet tall and three to six feet wide.  Ultimately to about fifteen feet tall and wide.

Texture

Young plants are so open, with widely-spaced and tightly-needled thin branches, that they have the anorexic style of supermodels.  Adolescent trees become bushier and lose their see-through sparseness, while mature ones are quite bushy.  Over its life cycle, 'Araucarioides' changes texture from linear and angular to fluffy and bulging.

Grown for

its elongated branches.  The short, soft and slightly-curved needles emerge all around the young stems, but because there can be an unusual length of straight growth before new branchlets form, the needles appear to be even shorter as well as even more closely-angled to the stems. 

 

its habit.  The distance between whorls of new branches means that the trees are bizarrely skeletal when young.  The entire plant might consist of the main stem four to six feet tall, with only three or four whorls of branches spaced evenly up it.  As the plant matures, those whorls develop into full-sized branches that, in turn, produce whorls of their own.  Over time, the tree becomes fuller and fuller, losing completely the broomstick habit of its youth.

 

its unpalatability to deer.  Cryptomeria is, as a rule, avoided by all browsers; I've never heard of (nor experienced) their bark getting gnawed either. 

Flowering season

Early Spring.  Cryptomeria flowers are not showy, nor are the cones the females mature to.  The male flowers produce a lot of pollen—so much so that in Japan, where Cryptomeria is very widely planted, especially for reforestation, the trees' pollen is the single largest cause of Spring hay fever.  

Color combinations

In warm weather, the needles are green with a soft dash of blue, but Cryptomeria could never be termed blue in the sense of a blue spruce.  The warm-weather foliage, then, is a neutral enough green that it goes with anything. 

 

In cold weather, the foliage changes to a strong mix of rust, burgundy, and ebony.  'Araucarioides' is much more eager for this seasonal change than, say, 'Yoshino', which is a bit hardier.  The Winter foliage of 'Araucarioides' is not flushed or blushed or overlaid with burgundy and rust and ebony; it is burgundy and rust and ebony.  Although this color is much more assertive than the blue-green of Summer—and, ironically given the chilly season, warmer—it's equally cosmopolitan in the colors with which it can comfortably associate.   

Partner Plants


Cryptomeria cultivars all benefit from plant partners that provide contrasting texture and habit; those with colorful foliage—even if it's just seasonal, as with 'Araucarioides'—also bring the possibility of intriguing color combinations.

 

Broadleaf evergreens whose foliage stays erect and in good condition would provide excellent Winter contrast in texture as well as color.  It's an unrealized fantasy of mine to underplant the larger cultivars of Cryptomeria with one of the wide-spreading cultivars of cherry laurel.  The "blue" hollies, such as 'Blue Princess', would be as exciting; the female blues are broader and wider than the males, so make better underplanting. 

 

'Araucarioides' is itself shrubby in habit, so would need a shorter broadleaf groundcover, such as sarcococca or, if you're gardening in Zone 7 and warmer, skimmia.  Pachysandra or vinca would be swell, too.  If the site isn't windy, Mahonia bealei would be especially exciting, with its jagged leaflets arranged in palm-like fronds.  Mahonia is a specimen clump, not an underplanting, but if you've allowed it to strike the broadleaved bell, so to speak, you could then underplant with something deciduous.  How about the shorter and more shade-tolerant ornamental grasses?  Hakonechloa would be wonderful.

 

Nothing complements any color in the garden as well as a simple backdrop of green, and this is as true in the Winter as the Summer.  Because 'Araucarioides' is itself a conifer, the usual first choice for a simple backdrop—the high and perfectly-trimmed yew hedge—would be, as a conifer, a repetition in category although not in form or color.  Instead, consider whatever taller hollies are hardy where you garden.  Ilex opaca is hardy wherever 'Araucaroides' is, and, like all hollies, can be clipped into hedges of architectural shape and sharpness.  Ilex 'Blue Prince' would be effective, too.  Because it's more upright than 'Blue Princess', 'Blue Prince' is preferred for hedges; holly hedges bear few berries, anyway, so there's no loss in not choosing 'Blue Princess'.  Ilex 'Nellie Stevens' is usually reliable throughout Zone 6; its deep-green foliage is particularly shiny.  There's a plethora of taller broadleaves, holly and not, for gardeners in Zone 7 and warmer to consider.


The unusual coloring of the cold-weather foliage of 'Araucarioides' also suggests some partner colors that are collateral instead of contrasting.  What about underplanting with Osmunda cinnamomea, whose cinnamon-stick fertile spikes last the Winter?  The conifer's warm-colored Winter foliage would be a good partner for the flowers of almost any witch hazel, which range from pale yellow to orange to brick-red.

 

Warm-weather contrasts that appreciate the same decent soil and moisture include hostas as long as they're planted on the shady side of the tree, and verbascums as long as they're planted on the sunny.   

Where to use it in your garden

Cryptomeria japonica 'Araucarioides' is nothing if not a specimen, both in its skinny youth and with its cold-weather coloring at any age.  It's not large enough, nor showy enough in warm weather, to be your garden's principle feature.  But be sure to give it a location of at least secondary focus—and also highlight its unusual Winter color with coordinating and contrasting plantings—so it's clear that the rusty-burgundy hue is intentional and desirable instead of being the result of poor culture or even death.  Help convey the message that, yes, rust-burgundy is a marvelous Winter color for a conifer, not a sign of a plant that needs to be cut down, by keeping the rest of your garden thriving and well-maintained.  Stocking it with other oddball plants only confirms the helpful inference that 'Araucarioides' is just the thing for sophisticates who welcome ever-wider horizons.  

Culture

Full sun and almost any moisture-retentive soil that still provides decent drainage.  Growth is fastest with good nutrition, so humus-rich soils are best.  Cryptomeria is not the conifer to plant where drought tolerance is a priority; in those habitats choose among junipers, cedars, and pines. 

How to handle it:  The Basics

Plant in Spring, and be attentive to watering the first season to be sure the young tree establishes.  If you're gardening in Zone 6, it would be a kindness to spray with antidessicant that first Winter.  My plants—I have four in all—have survived temperatures of minus 5, let alone extraordinarily heavy snow.  They're also planted in locations that are, as yet, completely devoid of any buffering horticulture.  And yet the trees are thriving. 

 

If your goal is simply that the tree grow and prosper in its natural form, you need only keep volunteer weeds from growing beneath or into it, and neighboring shrubs and trees from shading it.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?


Cryptomeria cultivars are amenable to a number of different forms of training.  The larger forms can be espaliered, pruned into hedges, or grown as bonsai.  The mounding dwarf cultivars can be grafted onto the trunk of a regular-habit cultivar to make a standard.  The simplest and also most powerful use of the full-height cultivars is to plant them in groves, where their strictly-upright trunks, cinnamon-colored bark, and, over time, irregularly branching crowns unite to form a cathedral-like garden feature of visual intensity and meditative calm.

 

'Araucarioides' doesn't grow tall enough for a grove, and there are many naturally-rounded cultivars to consider for grafted standards.  But given how well Cryptomeria respond to pruning, and how quickly non-dwarf cultivars grow, you could clip a line of 'Araucarioides' into a dense hedge with an exceptional color all Winter.  You could also grow one as a bonsai—or even a whole grove of them.   

Quirks or special cases


If you commit to the pruning, you could keep 'Araucarioides' thinned as it matures, and prolong its juvenile "supermodel" profile indefinitely.  Thin the whorls of new growth to just the vertical central sprout and three side sprouts; there can be well over a dozen side sprouts on unthinned whorls.  This is an excellent project for the second half of Fall, after most deciduous plants have dropped their foliage.  By that time, you can be sure that your pruning of the Cryptomeria won't inspire quick new growth that could become Winter-killed.  And the starker surrounding garden will help put you in the mood to fuss over your 'Araucardioides', too, removing every possible branchlet (or even branch) that might interfere with its continued maximal slenderness. 

 

The cool months are great for pruning projects in general, when the ground is usually too cold and wet (or even frozen) for comfortable kneeling, weeding, and digging, and yet when you'd still like to be outside whenever possible.  Chores where you don't need to kneel much, where you can stay as warmly dressed as necessary, and where you can wear fairly heavy gloves and yet still manipulate the necessary tools—these are what make going out into the garden a pleasure regardless of the temperature.

Downsides

Cryptomeria can contribute to Spring hay fever misery, but only when planted in quantity.  The trees are notably free of pests and diseases in cooler climates; in hot and humid climates, such as the American southeast, trees can be susceptible to tip dieback.

Variants

As is typical for plants native to Japan, where horticulture has been a high art for centuries, many cultivars have been identified.  The main interest has been in bushier growth at any overall height, greater hardiness, and diminished tendency of the foliage to turn rust-burgundy in the cold.  'Yoshino' is the hardiest of the fuller-size cultivars, with denser growth than the species, too. 

 

Foliage density tends to increase as overall size decreases.  This stands to reason, in that overall size decreases, in part, because of the shorter and shorter intervals between individual leaves.  And so the mid-sized cultivars, such as 'Black Dragon' and 'Gyokuryu', are notably more dense than 'Yoshino'.  

 

There are many dwarf and "dwarf-dwarf" cultivars, with a low and mounding habit and foliage so dense the plant looks—and feels—almost like coral.  'Vilmoriniana' is one of the oldest, growing very very slowly to only a couple of feet high and wide.  

 

There are only a few lighter-foliaged cultivars, and they are typically less hardy.  The new foliage of 'Sekkan Sugi' is bright yellow and the tree is hardy into Zone 6, albeit with tip damage some Winters; that of 'Knaptonensis' is true white when young, but this bushy dwarf is only hardy to Zone 7. 

 

In addition to overall size and foliage color and density, a few cultivars, such as 'Araucarioides', have foliage of unusual shape or habit.  'Elegans' retains juvenile foliage for the life of the tree; Cryptomeria normally switches to adult foliage when the plants are only a year old.  The foliage of 'Elegans' is so loosely feathery and fluffy that the tree doesn't look like Cryptomeria at all.  Like 'Knaptonensis', it is hardy only to Zone 7.  'Cristata' has green foliage that occasionally erupts into cockscomb-like fans.  The needles of 'Spiralis' grow tightly to the narrow branches, and are arranged spirally around them; the branches of 'Spiralis Falcata' are themselves somewhat spiral.

 

New cultivars appear yearly.  There's enough variation overall that you could have a Cryptomeria collection of six or even a dozen cultivars and not feel that it's becoming repetitive.    

Availability

On-line and, rarely, at retailers.

Propagation

By cuttings.

Native habitat

Cryptomeria japonica is, indeed, native to Japan.

 
 
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