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Arboretum Dwarf Conifers Provide Winter Beauty

Find winter landscape inspiration for your own yard in the Dwarf Conifer Collection.

COVID-19 Update: All members and visitors need to make a reservation in advance of their visit to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Find updates and information here.

Editor’s Note: This is a full version of a story that appeared in the February/March 2021 issue of Arboretum Magazine.

Dwarf Conifer Collection. Photo by Patrick Petersen.

by Alan Branhagen, Director of Operations

The Arboretum is a great place to get your landscape and garden ideas – even in winter! Winter gardens are a hot topic, and the Arb’s Dwarf Conifer Collection displays a premier example of shrubs and small trees that can make or break a winter landscape. Most are evergreens – which makes them so valuable to the winter scene. As these plants are also conifers (bearing cones), their cones add a bit of ornament too and many new dwarf conifers display these well.

The Arb’s Dwarf Conifer Collection began when the site was acquired, and some were moved to their current location in 1971. The collection was formalized in 1976 with the construction of the stream and waterfall. At more than 60 years old, some of the Arb’s conifers are no longer so dwarf, but are nonetheless inspiring as they demonstrate what majestic plants they can grow to be.

The American Conifer Society has revised its “Conifer Size Categories” that describe dwarf conifers to better classify their mature size: a new category includes miniature for those that don’t grow more than 1-inch per year and mature under 1-foot tall after 10 years! The other categories include dwarf (1 to 5 feet), intermediate (5 to 10 feet), and large (more than 10 feet).

Besides the wonderful foliage colors of dwarf conifers, it’s their forms that make them a real standout in the landscape. There is everything from rounded, spherical forms (one cultivar of our native Arborvitae is named Mr. Bowling Ball™), to typical conical or pyramidal forms, to sprawling creepers and upright weepers. With our low winter light, backlit conifers are often just a shadow so the form becomes even more apparent. Do keep that in mind when planting them in your garden – they are best viewed from where the sun is behind you so they are fore lit to show their detail. The winter shadows of conifers are also places for ice and snow to persist, as solar warmth is blocked.

Be sure and take some extra time observing the Arb’s Dwarf Conifer Collection on your next winter visit. They are a delightful sight in the season’s light as their winter costume is always changing with the snow and ice. You are sure to get some ideas for your own home landscape – great choices to replace overgrown foundation plantings or a good investment for a new home.

Dwarf Conifer Collection. Photo by Patrick Petersen.

Classic dwarf conifers by color in our collection

Yellow: Sawara False Cypress Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera,’ ‘Gold Spangle’ and ‘King’s Gold;’ Arborvitae Thuja occidentalis ‘Yellow Ribbon.’

Orange tones (butterscotch to bronze): Creeping Juniper Juniperus horizontalis ‘Lime Glow,’ Arborvitae Thuja occidentalis ‘Fire Chief,’ Japanese Larch Larix kaempferi ‘Nana’ (lingering needles post yellow fall color).

Yellow-Green: Scots Pine Pinus sylvestris ‘Moseri Gold.’

Emerald Green: Sawara False Cypress Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Minima Aurea,’ Savin Juniper Juniperus sabina Calgary Carpet™, Mugo Pine Pinus mugo ‘Valley Cushion.’

Forest Green: Japanese Yew Taxus cuspidata ‘Taunton.’

Gray-green: Rocky Mountain Juniper Juniperus scopulorum ‘Tolleson’s Blue Weeping’

Blue: Blue Spruces Picea pungens cultivars, Engelmann’s Spruce Picea engelmannii ‘Bush’s Lace.’

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