To most people, ‘conifer’ and ‘pine tree’ are synonymous. There is some rationale for this, as the pine family is the largest conifer family and what we call pines, firs and spruces are all pine family members. So what, exactly, is a spruce tree? Are spruces all trees? How are they different from pines and other conifers? And what are 10 of the most interesting types of spruce trees for the home garden and landscape?
The easiest ways to distinguish spruces from firs is the way mature seed cones are held in the tree. In spruces (Picea species) mature seed cones hang from the branches and will fall intact from tree while in firs (Abies species), mature cones are held upright on the branches and will disintegrate rather than falling intact.
Needles are also a distinguishing factor. Pine (Pinus species) needles grow in bundles (fascicles) of 1 to 5 needles, while spruces and firs are attached singly. Those with sharp eyesight will also notice that spruce needles are attached to a branch by a tiny peg (pulvinus), while fir needles are attached directly to the stem with what appears to be some sort of suction cup.
Spruces can be shrubs, small trees, or very large trees indeed. The average homeowner should focus on the dwarf and miniature selections that fit better into the home landscape. The Picea orientalis ‘Early Gold’ pictured above, for example, is about 6 feet (2 m) tall after 10 years, has orderly, delicate needles and attractive, slightly weeping branches. And those seed cones!
Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ is another oriental spruce tree; its distinctive feature is its lovely golden foliage. ‘Skylands’ should be protected from hot afternoon sun on summer’s longest days or it will burn. If ‘Skylands’ gets too big for your garden, there is a select “Skylands seedling” called ‘Firefly’ that displays the same golden foliage, but grows more slowly and stays smaller.
The Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) is probably responsible for more conifer distaste (if not downright hatred) than any other conifer. That’s because the wild trees that grow in nature get enormous! Unfortunately, too many developers and landscapers unwittingly planted small, young specimens right in front of houses. In just a few years the trees towered over the dwellings and covered the windows. However, there are many, many dwarf varieties and their color is stunning in the landscape. Look at how Picea pungens ‘Lucretia’, pictured above, contrasts with the purple leaves of the smoke bush (Cotinus) in the background. ‘Lucretia’ grows just a few inches a year, and can be easily pruned into interesting shrub shapes.
If you want a more traditional spruce tree shape, consider a cultivar like Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’, which has the cone-shape that most people associate with conifers, albeit in a much smaller size than the native behemoths. Albert gets to be about 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5m) tall after 10 years in the landscape, and true to its name, is wide at the base.
There are other Colorado spruces that grow in quirky fashion, which pruning can enhance, such as Picea pungens ‘Pendula’. Loch Ness Monster, anyone? And ‘Pendula’ produces some pretty special seed cones, rivaling those Picea orientalis ‘Early Gold’:
There are also Colorado spruces that have golden or creamy new needles, like Picea pungens ‘Gebelle’s Golden Spring’. These are typically slower growing than the species trees. Their new growth is as showy as any of the spring flowers!
Another very common spruce is the Norway spruce, or Picea abies. In nature, these trees are very large, with very dark green needles on gracefully weeping branches. But cultivars for the garden abound; this may be the most prolific spruce there is! Some also have golden needles, such as Picea abies ‘Aurea Magnifica’.
Others have tiny pink seed cones that look like rosebuds:
Picea abies ‘Pusch’ is a small plant that grows in a globe shape at the rate of about 2 inches (5 cm) per year. Those springtime seed cones are as decorative as flowers. It originated as a witch’s broom (bud mutation) on Picea abies ‘Acrocona’, another lovely spruce.
Some Norway spruce cultivars even have red needles! The new growth on Picea abies ‘Rubra Spicata’ is rosy and then matures to green:
There are also many weeping Norway spruces. Weeping specimens add a different dimension to the landscape. Some of them look like creatures!
These are 10 of the most striking spruces, but they represent only three of the almost 40 species of spruce! Imagine how many other lovelies are lurking in this genus. The ACS Conifer Database has the full story.
So add color, year-round interest, texture and structure to your garden by planting some dwarf conifers! join the American Conifer Society to learn more about conifers and to connect to a nationwide group of plant lovers! You’ll get discounts at nurseries, access to rare and unusual plants, and have a ton of fun!
Photographs by Janice M LeCocq Photograpy