Top ten conifers

Wintertime is undoubtedly Conifer season in many gardens all around the world. These shapely and statuesque evergreens dominate the landscape in the colder climates where many of the trees and shrubs are dormant during the fall and winter months. Their significance and impact is further enhanced by the fact that cold weather intensifies the coloration of the foliage, often turning somewhat ordinary plants into eye catching features as the harshness of winter
bites harder. My choices for this month are:

CUPRESSUS macrocarpa ‘Gold Crest’
JUNIPERUS chinensis ‘Variegata’
JUNIPERUS horizontalis ‘Prince of Wales’
JUNIPERUS x pfitzeriana ‘Gold Star’
JUNIPERUS scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’
PLATYCLADUS orientalis ‘Aurea Gracilis’
PLATYCLADUS oreintalis ‘Aurea Nana Compacta’
THUJA occidentalis ‘Rheingold’
THUJA occidentalis ‘Smaragd’

This top ten selection includes a wide range of conifers to cover the whole spectrum of garden uses that they perform so perfectly. Formal gardens are increasing in popularity at the moment and conifers lend themselves to this style, as many of them can be used for hedges whilst others endure clipping into shapes and topiaries. As solitary garden specimens or stand-alone plants they are unsurpassed, growing with a natural, symmetrical shape.

The key to growing healthy conifers is to ensure that they all have sufficient space in which to grow and develop without interference from surrounding structures or competing plants. Sunlight all around the plant and free air movement ensures that plants mature to a ripe old age. Most conifers attain their manageable garden proportions within ten years of growth, after which they can become large, disproportionate to the rest of the garden and generally untidy. Hence the mention of the two different sizes in the descriptions of each of the top ten. This is intended to make it easier to select the best conifers and plant them in the correct positions in your garden.

Your local nursery or garden centre will supply you with more useful information about growing conifers in your area. Most conifers will grow in most climates in South Africa, from the seashore to the very coldest regions. Perhaps the only parts where they battle are the arid, semi-desert climatic zones where dry soils and scorching temperatures hamper their growth.

PLATYCLADUS orientalis

‘Aurea Nana Compacta’ is a charming dwarf conifer of a rounded or globose habit and shape.

The tightly packed foliage is tipped with yellow, intensifying to burnt gold in winter.

It is ideal for small gardens and confined spaces, either as individual specimens or in group plantings.

It grows to a height of 80 cm in ten years and ultimately can attain 1.5 m.


A large, upright-growing conifer of conical shape.

Renowned for its rapid growth rate and dense foliage, it remains one
of the most effective and popular subjects for hedges and screening purposes.

Foliage is dull, grey-green all year round.

It grows to approximately 10 m high in ten years and can attain an ultimate height of 25 to 30 m.

JUNIPERUS scopulorum

‘Skyrocket’ is a narrow, pencil shaped plant with a sharply pointed growth tip which maintains a blue-grey colouring all year round.

The unusual shape makes this a popular feature or accent plant for confined spaces where height is necessary but space does not allow for any width.

It grows to 3 m tall in ten years with an ultimate height of around 7 or 8 m.

JUNIPERUS chinensis

‘Variegata’ is a pyramid-shaped, medium-sized conifer.

Foliage is sharp, needle-like, grey- green with irregular cream blotches, creating a two-tone effect.

It works well as a feature or specimen plant for large pots or simply out in the garden.

Grows to about 2 m tall in ten years with an ultimate height of 4 to 5 m.

THUJA occidentalis

‘Rheingold’ takes the form of low, neat and compact mounds of golden orange foliage that turns brown in winter.

Best planted in bold groupings in the foreground or in smallish pots, it is ideal for miniature landscapes of assorted conifers planted in a large pot.

It grows to 70 cm in ten years and can exceed 2 m when mature.

JUNIPERUS horizontalis

‘Prince of Wales’ is a flat, carpet-like ground cover.

It maintains a neat and tidy habit all year long. Its green foliage is often tinged purple by the cold of the winter season.

Forms a weed suppressing ground cover amongst other conifers, on banks and is highly effective in large landscape plantings.

It grows to 2 m wide in ten years and continues spreading indefinitely.

JUNIPERUS x pfitzeriana

‘Gold Star’ is vase-shaped, with a narrow base and wider top.

Branches are held in horizontal layers with distinctly drooping growth tips that maintain a golden colour throughout the year.

They contrast prominently with the rich green needles of the mature foliage. Ideal for mass planting on a large scale, it grows to 1,5 m tall and 2 m wide in ten years, getting increasingly larger over time.

CUPRESSUS macrocarpa

‘Gold Crest’ also grows to a conical shape.

Its large proportions and rich, golden foliage make this a dramatic landscape plant in local gardens.

The tightly packed scale leaves have a strong lemon fragrance if touched or crushed.

Colour changes form lime green in mid summer to rich golden yellow in winter.

Popular as a topiary plant as the foliage clips well and retains its colour, lustre and form.

Grows to 3 to 4 m high in ten years and ultimately 10 m or more.

PLATYCLADUS orientalis

Aurea Gracilis’ – a narrow, pyramid shape and tight compact foliage make this a highly sought after specimen plant.

The foliage is lime green with golden new growth tips.

The whole plant turns rich golden shades with hues of burnt orange in mid winter.

It grows to 2,5 m tall in ten years and ultimately reaches 5 m or so.

THUJA occidentalis

‘Smaragd’ – its neat pyramidal shape and glossy green foliage (Smaragd means emerald in Danish) throughout the year make this gem a near perfect feature plant for both formal and informal gardens.

It grows to 1,5 m in ten years and can attain heights of 3 m or more.

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