Discovering Conifer Cultivars

By Neil Fusillo

Read about the exhiliration of finding a new cultivar at your local conifer nurseries.

The Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) ‘Twisted Logic’ introduced by Tom Cox (Cox Arboretum)
The Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) ‘Twisted Logic’ introduced by Tom Cox (Cox Arboretum)

For those of us who have been bitten by the conifer bug, there’s nothing quite as exciting as going to a local nursery and finding a conifer we’ve never seen before. It may bear a foreign name, or an unfamiliar pattern or color.

And, while it may not quite fit in our gardens, or it may not grow well in our climate, we may drop some serious money to give it a try anyway, because it’s new and exciting and different. But where do these conifers come from? How do they wind up in those local nurseries? And where on earth do they get those names??

Discovering a new cultivar of conifer is an obsession for some and a mild distraction for others, but it often seems the purview only of the deeply experienced within the conifer field. While the knowledge surrounding cultivar hunting is a bit steeped in legends and tales, the truth is, anyone can do it.

And once you understand what to look for, and what to do when you find something new, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience when you wander into that local nursery one day and see your own discovery there on the shelves.

Conifer Cultivar Definitions

The basics of discovering conifer cultivars are simple. There are three main ways in which new cultivars are found: they’re found as seedling variations, as sports, or as witch’s brooms.

  • A seedling variation is just a plant that has grown from seed and exhibits different characteristics from the parent tree. It could weep, or have a different color, or grow slowly or ultra-narrow.
  • A sport is a section of a tree that exhibits different characteristics. Variegated cultivars are often discovered as sports of parent trees.
  • A witch’s broom is a particular kind of sport denoted by a tighter cluster of growth in a section of the tree. Witch’s brooms often become the little globose (round) dwarf conifer cultivars we see in nurseries.
The Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) ‘Fluffy Cloud’ witch’s broom
The Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) ‘Fluffy Cloud’ witch’s broom

Finding any of these variations is as simple as searching trees and looking. But be aware that there are often trees that look different that aren’t different for genetic reasons. For instance, you might have a tree that’s infested by insects, causing it to grow in a different way.

Or, you might have one that’s been cut or broken by falling branches or other trees, causing it to grow differently because of damage. You might see discoloration from disease or fungus. All of these things could lead to trees that look different, but aren’t able to become new cultivars.

Propagating for a New Conifer Cultivar

Once you find something genuinely, genetically different, however, you can see about cloning it into a new plant. If you have no experience with grafting or propagating conifers, I would recommend not experimenting on your own with your newly discovered gem.

Even for the experts, there’s always a chance of failure, but at least they have the experience and the hardware set up to give it a better chance of survival. Since grafting is generally done in the dead of winter, I recommend spending the warmer months lining up nurseries or plantsmen who can help you.

When Sarah Montgomery recently discovered a Pinus virginiana witch’s broom in Alpharetta, GA, she came to me for help both with finding someone to propagate it, and with collecting. We spent the rest of the year, nervously watching it, hoping nothing would happen to the witch’s broom before we got a chance to collect it the following winter.

During that time, we rounded up a host of great people to clone her discovery and get it out into the market. All the grafters we talked to were incredibly helpful, and happy to tell us how to get these scions for grafting, and when they needed them.

Sarah Montgomery holding the Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) ‘Fluffy Cloud’ witch’s broom
Sarah Montgomery holding the Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) ‘Fluffy Cloud’ witch’s broom

Collecting Samples of a (Potential) Conifer Cultivar

Collecting for us was just a matter of a tall enough ladder and a long enough pole pruner to grab a branch or two. Sometimes, it takes more drastic measures, as brooms can often be high up in the upper canopy. Some collectors have been known to shoot them down with shotguns. Whichever route you wind up taking, be sure you do it safely, and with the permission of the property owner.

Whether you opt to collect and propagate the discoveries you make or just leave them for others to enjoy, it’s always a good idea to take some great pictures and share what you’ve found with others. There are Facebook pages devoted to witch’s brooms, and plant propagation.

And, of course, the ACS has its own forum pages with eager eyes always ready to see pictures of the new and unique. Discovering new cultivars can be a great pastime, and fun for conifer lovers of all ages.

Photographs by Neil Fusillo.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Conifer Quarterly. Join the American Conifer Society to access our extensive library of conifer-related articles and connect to a nationwide group of plant lovers! Become a member for only $40 a year and get discounts with our growing list of participating nurseries in our Nursery Discount Program.