Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Saturday, May 17, 2014

My favorite plant in the garden, this week is - Cunninghamia lanceolata 'Glauca'

I almost missed posting my favorite plant this week! I didn't write it ahead of time and yesterday I was in a bit of a daze after having my upper wisdom teeth removed. Luckily my wisdom never resided in my teeth anyway. My favorite plant this week is Cunninghamia lanceolata 'Glauca' or blue Chinese fir, which also just appeared in this post. Let's pretend that was an intentional sneak preview. I purchased it from Garland Nursery just this week, and I'll be sharing that trip in a later post.

My new Chinese fir is just a little thing, but Cunninghamia can grow 2-3 feet per year. Staked as it is, this one was likely propagated from a side branch. With most conifers, this would mean that it would never grow like a normal tree, but rather remain low and shrubby. This trunk will do exactly that, but Cunninghamia have the ability, indeed propensity, to produce new upright trunks from the base. In fact, there is already a tiny new shoot at the base of mine that will likely grow into a normal, upright trunk, provided the leader is not removed.



Cunninghamia is an ancient genus that, according to The Gymnosperm Database, is regarded as the most primitive member of the Cupressaceae family. Yes, despite the common name Chinese fir, and the long "needles," Cunninghamia is related to cypresses and yews, not spruces, pines, or firs. In perfect conditions they can reach over 160 feet tall, but for the blue form 40-60 feet is more common. The species is valued as timber due to its soft yet durable, easily-worked, insect-resistant wood, as well as its ease of propagation and its unique ability to resprout from the base. Daniel Mosquin of the University of British Columbia shares with us that the native distribution of Cunninghamia lanceolata is not known because it has been cultivated as a timber crop for over 800 years and in that time it has spread throughout China and Southeast Asia. Wow! An ancient lineage and over 800 years as a cultivated plant!



I now have a piece of evolutionary and agricultural history in this Cunninghamia. I plan to untie the shoot from its stake, which will encourage new, upright trunks to develop at the base. Branches that touch the ground can also root and produce upright trunks. If left to its own devices, these trees can produce entire groves from a single plant. Most people would probably prefer to control it by removing the lower branches so that they can't root and removing suckers arising from the base of the trunk. I've seen a mature specimen allowed to sucker and root along the branches and I love the primeval look of a grove of Cunninghamia permitted to grow uninhibited, so I'll be letting it do whatever it wants.

The old branchlets and needles persist for several years and can create a messy look of dead, brown bits inside the tree, as well as dropping to form an enduring mulch on the ground. Personally, I don't mind the brown bits and will welcome the self-mulching feature.


The stats on Cunninghamia lanceolata 'Glauca':

  • Hardy in USDA zones 7-9, grows in zone 6 but suffers winter die-back and requires more frequent cleaning of the persistent dead, brown needles and branchlets
  • 35-70 feet tall, depending on environmental conditions, width depends on number of trunks allowed to grow, may exceed 25 feet
  • It is generally said to prefer average to moist, rich, acidic soils in open shade with protection from strong, drying winds.
  • It actually tolerates some of the most grueling conditions of drought, clay soil, low fertility and full sun
  • Main ornamental feature is the blue color of the glaucous needles, which can be over 2 inches long
  • Similar to a monkey puzzle tree in youth, but with a looser, more feathery appearance and may become very dense with age, always somewhat wild and ragged
  • May take on bronze tones in cold winters
  • Mature trees have brown bark that exfoliates in long strips, revealing reddish inner bark
  • No serious pests or diseases. Stiff, sharp needles make it unpalatable to deer



 I quite like the blue of the Cunninghamia against the bronze new growth of Rhododendron 'Gartendirektor Glocker'. I may have to come up with a way to implement this color combo, though planting the rhododendron with the Cunninghamia at this stage would require moving the rhody further out as the Cunninghamia expands, not to mention getting enough of the rhody to make a mass of them so as not to get lost against the mass of a mature Cunninghamia. Perhaps a tree with burgundy foliage planted nearby will be in order. I can see a Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy', purple smokebush, or even a taller red Japanese maple contrasting nicely with the blue needles. The wheels are spinning. That's always a dangerous sign.


Speaking of danger, My favorite plant in the garden this week is hosted by Loree of Danger Garden. Be sure to check out her blog to see what captured her interest this week and the comments below to see what other garden bloggers have been geeking over.

7 comments:

  1. A grove of Cunninghamia trees, several red Maples and smoke bushes followed by a few bronze Rhododendrons. In full bloom no less. My imagination wheels are turning too.
    Very interesting information about conifer propagation and the history of this tree.

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    1. It paints a colorful picture, doesn't it? I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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  2. As you know I have a fondness for this tree, your post has only encouraged me! I love that foliage so much. Usually what I do when I'm lusting after a tree I can't have is find one in a nearby garden and watch it through the seasons, kind like adopting it. I drive by and think, "how's my monkey puzzle tree looking today"...sadly the only Cunninghamia lanceolata 'Glauca' I know of nearby is in an enclosed garden. I am on the hunt!

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    1. Writing this reminded me that this tree can be coppiced, even cut to ground level, to control its size and refresh it. I wonder if this would allow you to fit it in your yard? It might be worth trying.

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  3. I wish we could get hold of this beautiful blue conifer soon. It's still rather on the rare side here. Great plant to highlight!

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    1. I hope you can find one! I find it unusual that it's harder to locate there than it is here. It seems like it's usually the other way around, but maybe that's because I lust after the plants that are more readily available in the U.K.

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  4. I'm so glad that you mentioned that the tree can be coppiced as I have one growing where it would be a bit inconvenient to have a 40 - 60 foot tree! Beautiful!

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