What is a Miniature Conifer?

By Web Editor

Follow the undertakings of Bill Van Kosky as he identifies a discovery conifer.


For many years, mature conifers have been attempting to convert the clearing behind our house into a forest. A spongy mat of sphagnum moss there has served as a germination medium. Large trees nearby, primarily Abies balsamea, Picea abies, and Tsuga canadensis, have furnished the seeds. Seedlings have sprung up in such profusion that I have had to mow them down every few years.

One summer afternoon in 2015, as I was walking through this area, I noticed what I considered another typical
little conifer, but then realized that it didn’t look quite right. It was so small that I had to get down on my knees to examine it. It proved to be a decidedly non-typical Picea abies.

Identifying Features of a Miniature Conifer

The tree’s habit was peculiar in that the limbs (if that term is properly applied to such spindly little things) were inclined upward at acute angles and were very closely spaced. The trunk was somewhat wrinkled and lumpy, giving it the appearance of age that bonsai practitioners strive for.

Might it be a genetic miniature? I took a photograph of my find and fashioned a hardware cloth cage to mark its location and protect it from injury.

From experience, the probability of finding a garden-worthy conifer growing in the wild was low. The likelihood of finding a genetic miniature there was even lower. In fact, the odds are very much against one of them surviving in the wild for more than a few years. Being small puts miniature conifers at the same disadvantage as the runt in a litter of pigs; larger competitors overwhelm it in the struggle to survive.

Looking at a Garden of Miniature Conifers

However, low probability events do occur. There is a winning ticket in every lottery. People are struck by lightning on sunny days. Once in a great while, a genetic miniature conifer is found by chance, growing in a meadow, field or forest.

I wondered where the miniature conifers in my gardens had originated. Checking my records, I learned that I had thirty-one miniature cultivars. Six species were represented: four Abies, eight Chamaecyparis, one Juniperus, ten Picea, six Pinus and two Tsuga.

By consulting reference books, the ACS website and my boxful of nursery tags, I learned that only two of my miniatures descended from seedlings found growing in a natural setting. Twelve of the thirty-one originated as witch’s brooms, and four were from sports.

Of the remaining thirteen, many originated as seedlings in mass plantings in nurseries where they were deemed superior to dozens, hundreds or even thousands of others. Origins of the remainder were either unknown to my sources or were described in unhelpful phrases such as “introduced from Japan” and “found in France”.

From left: 2017 Close-up of Discovery Tree; 2017 Photo of first control tree (for comparison with habit and height of discovery tree); Photo of second control tree
From left: 2017 Close-up of Discovery Tree; 2017 Photo of first control tree (for comparison with habit and height of discovery tree); Photo of second control tree

Would the odd little Picea eventually be transplanted into one of my gardens to become miniature number thirty-two, or would its small stature, wrinkled trunk and ascending-limb habit turn out to be a disfiguration caused by something other than genetic programming? I was determined to find out.

Several other small Norway spruce were growing within a few feet of the discovery tree. Among them were two that matched its height. I photographed these trees, recorded their vital statistics and enclosed them in hardware cloth cages. The three trees were exposed to the same sunlight and rainfall and were growing in the same soil.

I took photographs and measurements in the fall of 2017, two years after discovery. Both “control” trees had grown nearly three inches. Over the same period, the height of the discovery tree had increased by only a bit more than an inch.

Determining the Age of a Discovery Conifer

Knowing the age of the three trees would make growth-rate comparisons more meaningful. Judging by a count of whorls on the control trees, they were both approximately nine years old. Given the discovery tree’s curious habit and overall appearance, I felt that I didn’t have a reasonable basis for determining its age.

I considered a rather offbeat idea, but didn’t act on it: wait for the proper time of year, cut the tree in two with a knife, count the annual rings and then graft it back together. I was curious about the age of the discovery tree — but not that curious.

Experimental Methods for a Miniature Conifer

So is it a miniature, a dwarf, or just a little tree that has had a difficult childhood, so to speak? I can think of three ways to proceed. One is to use the template familiar to us from watching television news, stock market, and sports channels: find three or four loudmouthed, opinionated commentators and have all of them shout conflicting oracular pronouncements at the same time.

A second option would be to expand the pool of guessers to include everyone in the world who has access to a computer, and let them fight it out on the Internet. By the time consensus is reached, the tree, whatever it turns out to be, will have died of old age.

I have a better idea. Each year after the annual growth spurt, I’ll continue to take photographs and measurements, and let the accumulation of facts over time answer the question, “Is it a miniature?”

From left: Discovery Tree as of August 2018; First Control Tree as of August 2018; Second Control Tree as of August 2018
From left: Discovery Tree as of August 2018; First Control Tree as of August 2018; Second Control Tree as of August 2018

An Update on the Miniature Conifers

Bill Van Kosky updated the trees’ measurements at the suggestion of JD Belanger, CQ editing staff.

Tues., Sep 4, 2018
I asked Bill for updated measurements on the three trees he has been tracking. This was his reply:

“Ron, I just went out and measured the 3 little trees. The height of the discovery tree is 5 1/2 inches. The height of control trees: 9 1/8 and 13 1/4 inches respectively. So, as expected, the two controls trees are putting on new growth at a significantly faster rate than the little guy. In 2015, all three trees were almost exactly 4 inches high.”

Marquette, Michigan

Text and photographs by Bill Van Kosky.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 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.