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Spring in the Conifer Collection

May 2, 2023


As the northern hemisphere continues to tilt towards the sun, the days continue to lengthen, while spring advances ever further up the North American continent. Expanding buds, new leaves, and flowers, along with migrating birds and emerging insects frequently come to mind when thinking of spring. Many magnolias have finished blooming, while for the crabapples, the celebration has only begun. Conifers are not flowering plants, which explains the lack of interest in them during the spring and summer months. Adding insult to injury, people often associate conifers with being evergreen, which further reduces their appeal during the spring. However, a walk through the conifer collection may prove more interesting than initially meets the eye.

Metasequoia (right) and Taxodium (left) outside the conifer collection

Just outside the gate to the conifer collection, two species of deciduous conifer are coming back to life: the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Like the broadleaved trees in the surrounding natural areas, these conifers seasonally lose their leaves before producing new shoots in the spring. The dawn redwood originates from China, while the bald cypress hails from the swamps of the southeastern U.S. Within a few weeks, a fresh canopy of bright green leaves will erupt within this stand of bald cypress and dawn redwood. As conifers, these trees don’t produce showy spring flowers, but they do send out fresh green leaves to take advantage of the lengthening days.

New growth on a white spruce (Picea glauca)

Evergreen conifers within the collection also send out new growth in the spring. Since these trees already have old leaves from the prior year, they can photosynthesize on warm, sunny days in winter and early spring, when new leaves would be too vulnerable to hard freezes. With old leaves already photosynthesizing, the spring leaf out is far less dramatic than for deciduous trees, but they can still captivate attention with other features.

Tanyosho pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’)

Hidden within the conifer collection grows a distinct cultivar of the Japanese red pine called the Tanyosho pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’). This tree forms an extremely attractive umbrella-like canopy with bright green foliage, with the bark and branches appearing a warm orange. The overall canopy almost resembles a miniature Italian stone pine, and in any event adds an elegant form to the conifer collection.

Polish larch (Larix decidua ssp. polonica)

At the other end of the conifer collection grow a stand of Polish larches (Larix decidua var. polonica). The Latin name refers to Polish larches being a separate variety of European larch (Larix decidua), as the high mountains of southern Poland remain isolated from the rest of the European alps, where the European larch resides. In early spring, new clusters of bright green needles emerge from the bare stems, often well before most neighboring broadleaf deciduous trees have begun leafing out.

Spring has sprung around the Holden Arboretum, with plants sporting showy flowers often taking center stage. Although conifers are less known for their spring drama, deciduous conifers are in their element when flushing out new leaves, while evergreen conifers produce colorful new pinecones and “candles” of new growth. A new season brings renewed beauty – even in the conifer collection, where one might least expect it.

Max Bauders

Max Bauders

Trails Assistant AmeriCorps Member

Max Bauders is a Trails Assistant AmeriCorps member at Holden Forests and Gardens. He began serving in October 2022 and will continue until September 2023. He enjoys nature photography and learning about conifers.

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