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Plant Profiles

Spirals of 'Yellow Ribbon' Arborvitae



I'm growing a quartet of 'Yellow Ribbon' arborvitaes into spirals, where the trunk itself is a spiral, not just the foliage.  High time for another round of training on this youngster.


The trunk has been tied around a supporting "quiver" of rebar.  See "Quirks and special cases" for details.  The old ties have rotted away (oops), so it's time to retie the trunk as well as to prune the leafy growth.




With most of the foliage trimmed off, the trunk can be retied to a somewhat more compressed spiral. 




Arborvitae branches out easily, so new foliage will begin to fill out the shape within weeks.  From now on, I'll be faithful about a yearly review, so that the trunk and the foliage of the developing spiral will both kept on track.



Here's how to grow this accommodating and colorful conifer:


Latin Name

Thuja occidentalis 'Yellow Ribbon'

Common Name

'Yellow Ribbon' arborvitae


Cupressaceae, the Cypress family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen fan-spray conifer.


Zones 3 - 7.


Upright, with a strong central trunk and short side branches. 

Rate of Growth

Medium to slow. 

Size in ten years

To ten feet tall and three feet wide.



Grown for

its habit: 'Yellow Ribbon' is upright and fairly narrow, growing slowly and never getting more than ten or twelve feet tall.  


its foliage: New growth is bright yellow, but all the foliage bronzes significantly in Winter. 


its accommodating nature:  Arborvitaes thrive in sweet soil as well as acid, in locations that are exposed to Winter cold and wind, and soils that are poorly draining.  They are as happy to grow when pruned authoritatively and even relentlessly, which can keep them at almost any height indefinitely, as they are to grow free-range.

Flowering season

Late Spring, but the flowers are not showy.  The cones they mature to aren't especially showy either.  'Yellow Ribbon' is a conifer to plant for its foliage and its form, not its cones.

Color combinations

'Yellow Ribbon' is bright, and can associate congenially only with plants that celebrate green, white, burgundy, blue, or yellow.

Partner Plants

'Yellow Ribbon' is an easy star when backed with darker broadleafed evergreens such as large-scale rhododendrons, tree-sized holly, or Southern magnolia. 


'Yellow Ribbon' welcomes climbing or rambling vines or shrubs, as long as they don't overwhelm it.  So you'd be choosing smaller plants than those I've recommended for a large-scale yellow conifer, 'Robinson's Gold' cupressocyparis.  'Golden Showers' is a good choice, in that it's a seeming contradiction: a short climbing rose.  It reaches only six to ten feet. 


Blue-flowered clematis would be a thrill against the bright foliage of 'Yellow Ribbon'.  I grow 'Lady Murasaki' clematis up a trio of pencil yews, and I keep it under eight feet by cutting it down to a couple of feet each Spring.  Plant two or three feet away from the trunk, so the vine's roots aren't competing as directly with the arborvitae for moisture and nutrients.  Grow the vine along the ground over to the arborvitae trunk, and keep those horizontal stems permanently.  (If they eventually root into the ground along the way, so much the better.)  In early Spring, prune back all stems to the leaf buds that are right at the base of the arborvitae's trunk, so the new growth will develop right where you need it: Upward into the foliage. 

Where to use it in your garden

'Yellow Ribbon' is a vivid focal point, by virtue of its upright habit and its showy yellow color.  Because this cultivar matures so much shorter than full-size arborvitae, it could be effective at the end of more compact vistas.  Or as a not-too-tall vertical jolt of color at the middle of a bed.  What an energetic display if the bed is long enough that you can plant another 'Yellow Ribbon' every twenty feet. 


If you're careful that the tree doesn't become drought-stressed, 'Yellow Ribbon' is so hardy that you could grow it in large containers.


Full sun in any soil, sweet or acid, that's moisture-retentive.  Arborvitae are particularly tolerant of poor drainage, and can tolerate near bog-like conditions and brief seasonal flooding.

How to handle it:  The Basics

Arborvitae transplants readily, so even large specimens can tolerate being balled-and-burlapped.  Container-grown stock establishes even more readily.  As long as they don't become drought-stressed, arborvitaes are unusually tolerant of soil pH and drainage that's occasionally or even routinely awful.  Nonetheless, growth is more vigorous when the soil is deep, rich in organic matter, and reasonably well-drained.  Arborvitaes are so hardy that they can be planted in Spring or Fall. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Arborvitaes are tolerant of pruning, and also naturally upright to begin with.  On both counts, they can easily be formed into hedges.  A hedge of 'Yellow Ribbon' would electric, and would need to be conceived as a statement in itself, not a mere structural screen.  Provide taller free-range shrubbery at the back, preferably with deep green leaves that lean to yellow instead of blue. 


What about 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly?  Her dark-green and shiny foliage would be a lively contrast, and there's the additional coordination of yellow young stems.  Yellow-berried viburnum would be another terrific partner; V. dilatatum 'Michael Dodge' grows only to five or six feet, so would be to the foreground of the hedge.  Leave enough room on both sides of any arborvitae hedge, not just so you have easy access for pruning, but also to ensure that plenty of sun reaches the lower portions of the hedge.  Arborvitaes are not shade tolerant, and growth that doesn't get enough light quickly thins.  A very tall holly such as 'Nellie Stevens' would only be practical, then, if it were at the north side of the arborvitae.  Otherwise the entire hedge would be cast into shade. 


Plant arborvitae hedges in Spring or Fall, and be sure that the bushes get enough water their first season to establish.  You can prune in either Spring or Fall, too; if you prune in Fall, the hedge will hold its sharp lines through the Winter until growth resumes in the Spring.

Quirks or special cases

Forming arbovitae into a spiral is easy when the trunk is retained as a vertical spine around which the coil of foliage ascends.  The tightest growth is achieved when trees are started into training when only a few feet tall, and the side branches are still fairly short.  Arborvitae is generous in being able to branch out when pruned, but it's not usually the case that new growth will emerge from an otherwise bare stub.  Because you can safely prune a given branch back only to its last bit of green growth, it's better to start pruning when the branch is young and therefore short.


Before you begin, study the pattern of branches at the bottom of the tree for a bit to get the sense of where your next branches up the developing coil of foliage are likely to be emerging.  And then—like Michelangelo creating David by "just" removing all the marble that wasn't part of the finished sculpture—begin to prune away growth, higher and higher, that isn't part of the completed spiral.  Gaps in the coil of a young spiral eventually fill in: Your pruning brings light right to the very center of the tree—the trunk—so new growth is energetic as well as thick. 


Growing an arborvitae where the trunk itself is a spiral is a much longer-term proposition, because you need to be training the trunk, too, not just the foliage arising from it. 


The trunk needs to be tied to a central form to keep it from "reverticalizing."  I created a "quiver" of rebar by having holes drilled in five or six round metal plates that are about six inches in diameter, and threaded the rebar through them.  Some cross-wiring under each plate keeps them securely spaced up the quiver.  I pounded the quiver into the soil by striking each rebar in the quiver sequentially, going round and round to drive all the rebars into the ground together.


Start with a particularly small tree—a foot or two high, tops—and plant it on an angle so the trunk can spiral right from the ground.  Creation of the spiral-trunked arborvitae is a matter both of training the trunk and pruning the foliage to keep the spiral of the trunk revealed.  If you need to do more radical pruning (as I have done in the pictures above), do it in early Spring so new growth will clothe the awkward stubs of the branches. 


After several years, when the spiral is the height you'd like, you can remove the quiver or keep it in place permanently.  The spiral trunk will always need a bit of vertical support, so if you do remove the quiver, replace it with just one vertical rebar that's placed at the inside of the spiral and tangent to the coiling trunk, not in the center of it.  Then you can tie the trunk to the rebar every foot or so.  Place this single rebar at the back, so each round of the coil will seem to "fly" without support at the front.  It's particularly helpful to keep a spiral-trunked arborvitae closely pruned, to enhance the absence of the usual ramrod-straight center trunk.


Arborvitaes are conifers for cold climates, and do not normally thrive south of Virginia.  Especially at the warmer end of their hardiness range, they are not tolerant of drought or low humidity; throughout their hardiness range they are intolerant in shade.  Deer devour all foliage from ground level to about five feet, so arborvitae are not practical in gardens where they are not protected  Mature plants are usually multi-trunked, and can become permanently splayed open or even broken apart by heavy snow and ice.  Hedges are less susceptible if they are pruned to be much narrower at the top than the bottom—which, happily, is the shape that encourages the thickest growth top-to-bottom, too. 


There are scores of arborvitae cultivars, from dense tuffet-like dwarfs never more than two feet tall, such as 'Umbraculifera', to broad vertical blocks and narrow spires that range in height from twenty to sixty feet or more.  Foliage in warm weather ranges from near white at just the tips, to bright yellow overall, to deep green.  Young foliage is usually brighter than mature foliage, as is the sunny side of foliage of any age.  Winter foliage can be bronze or even orangish, although there are cultivars whose foliage remains a good quality green year-round.  Such always-green cultivars are best unless you have a deep affection for the warm-weather foliage, habit, or mature size of a particular "bronzer."  There are no cultivars with blue or even bluish foliage. 


'Techny' and 'Nigra' are among the standard always-green cultivars; 'Smaragd' and 'Malonyana' are also always-green, as well as unusually narrow.  'Degroot's Spire' is exceptionally narrow, but also bronzes.  'Filiformis' has narrow dangling rope-like foliage, looking like an homage to the Komondor dog.          


On-line and, sometimes, at special nurseries.


'Yellow Ribbon' is propagated by cuttings.

Native habitat

Thuja occidentalis is native to eastern North America, from Manitoba to Nova Scotia south as far as from Tennessee to Virginia.

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