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Plant Profiles

Golden Cryptomeria in Winter

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The foliage of "golden" cryptomeria is anything but that in the Winter.  Bronze is more like it, and when the weather's really cold, rust.  I grow a golden cryptomeria as an espalier, just two feet out from the side of the house.  The outward face of it gets full sun but also full wind.  It's the bronzy side.

 

The side of 'Sekkan Sugi' that faces to the house gets much less sun, and is sheltered by the house as well as the outward face of the cryptomeria itself. 

 

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Its foliage doesn't feel nearly as strong a Winter.  And in such a freakishly mild Winter as this, it didn't bronze at all. 


From the side, the espalier looks like two different plants sandwiched together.

 

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Here's how to grow this unusual conifer:


Latin Name

Cryptomeria japonica 'Sekkan Sugi'

Common Name

Golden Cryptomeria

Family

Cupressaceae, the Cypress family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen conifer.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 8.

Habit

Single-trunked and broadly upright.

Rate of Growth

Medium. 

Size in ten years

Ten to twenty feet tall, four to ten feet wide; growth is much faster in warmer climates.  Ultimately to about thirty feet tall and fifteen wide.

Texture

Fluffy but dense.  'Sekkan Sugi' branches out so readily that the feathery foliage soon forms a solid screen.

Grown for

its young foliage and branches, which are a bright creamy yellow that's a strong and exciting contrast to the green of older growth.


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 pale-but-bright hue of the new growth is compatible with just about anything.  Unlike plants whose calling card is deeper yellow, 'Sekkan Sugi' can socialize with pink, too, not just reds or other yellows.  It also harmonizes with blue, white, and burgundy—but, then again, they are the universal mixers, as adept at conversing with pale yellow as with smoldering vermilion or electric fuchsia.

 

At the cold end of Zone 7 and throughout Zone 6, the cold and sun of Winter causes the foliage to change to a rusty color; foliage that's shaded and sheltered stays green.  'Sekkan Sugi' is much more eager for this seasonal change than, say, 'Yoshino', which is a bit hardier.  The Winter foliage of 'Sekkan Sugi' is not flushed or blushed or overlaid with rust; it is rust.  This color is as assertive as the yellow of Summer, and 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, such as 'Sekkan Sugi', 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. 

 

'Sekkan Sugi' 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.

 

With global warming, more of us than ever could underplant 'Sekkan Sugi' not just with a palm-leaved Mahonia, but with actual palms.  My 'Sekkan Sugi' is located in a still garden that is bounded at the east, west, and south by high hedges, and backed at the forth by the house itself.  This Spring I'll underplant it with pots of Sabal minor 'McCurtain', reputed to be one of the hardiest cultivars.  The dense 'Sekkan Sugi' growth will muffle wind that comes from above, as well as wind that hits the house and is shunted downward.  We'll see.

 

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 'Sekkan Sugi' 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 'Sekkan Sugi' 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 R. 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 'Sekkan Sugi' 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.  For more combinations that enhance the display of plants that feature copper tones in cold weather, see the "Plant partner" suggestions for Alnus incana 'Aurea'

 

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

In its cold-weather hues as well as its warm, Cryptomeria japonica 'Sekkan Sugi' is nothing if not a specimen.  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 hue is intentional and desirable instead of being the result of poor culture or even death.  Help convey the message that, yes, rust 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 strengthens the helpful inference that 'Sekkan Sugi' is just the thing for sophisticates who welcome ever-wider horizons.  

Culture

Full sun except in the hottest climates, where some mid-day shade would be welcome.  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 the first Winter or two.  There can still be some dieback of new and even mature growth, but the tree is very eager to sprout secondary branches, even from thicker limbs.  As long as the dieback is just cosmetic, the tree recovers quickly.  Groom young trees in early Spring to remove dieback.  'Sekkan Sugi' becomes hardier as it gets older and larger, so about the time the tree is too tall to groom for dieback, it's hardy enough not to need it anymore, anyway.

 

If your goal is simply that the tree grow and prosper in its natural form, after 'Sekkan Sugi' is old and large enough to have grown into a solid Zone 6 hardiness, 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. 

 

If you have a protected location that's, nonetheless, large enough for a grove of one of the less-hardy Cryptomeria, 'Sekkan Sugi' would be a singular choice. 

Quirks or special cases


The habit of 'Sekkan Sugi' is dense to begin with—and is often denser still as a result of all the secondary sprouting that results from dieback.  Pruning the tree could help hold it to a size that's more easily shelterable, while also encouraging the maximum production of the colorful young foliage.  Prune only in early Spring for the first five years, so that new growth of what is still a young plant has all possible time and heat over the Summer to harden up for Winter.  Older trees could be pruned in Fall, after it's cool enough that there's no danger of late-season sprouts, which would surely be Winter-killed.  Because the juvenile foliage color is lost by Winter, there's no coloristic downside to pruning that first-year growth in the Fall.

 

In warm weather, a hedge of 'Sekkan Sugi' would be the ultimate celebration of the bright young foliage.  My choice for training my 'Sekkan Sugi'—an espalier—was guided as much by scarcity of space as the practical need to grow the tree with maximum shelter.  I didn't have room for a hedge of it, and couldn't have easily given the young plants the Winter protection they'd need, either.  The espalier frame is just two feet out from the south face of my house, and runs parallel to it.  The tree has shown its appreciation for the sun and the shelter—as well as its talent for branching-out—by growing into a solid wall of growth ten feet wide and twelve tall.  In later Winter or early Spring, I prune the lateral as well as vertical growth of each arm of the espalier, which motivates the tree to grow an even bigger crop of new twigs, for an even brighter display of pale-yellow excitement.

 

The foliage is a bit prickly, and the dense growth of a hedge or espalier ensures that there's a lot of dead twigs in the interior that have become shaded out.  They are pricklier still.  Cleaning-up the tree is as much about cleaning out the tree as it is the actual pruning. 


If you commit to the pruning needed for a 'Sekkan Sugi' hedge or espailer, you create an excellent project for the cooler season.  It's a great time 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.  When that same clothing also protects you from the scratchiness of the growth of what you're pruning, you have the satisfaction of knowing you've been able to bring your work into harmony with the season, the plant, and the human frailty of you, the gardener.

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.  In addition to the pale foliage of 'Sekkan Sugi', 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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