Many people love to despise conifers, perhaps because they dismiss their huge variety with just one word—leylandii.
The Leyland cypress, Cupressocyparis leylandii, seems to fire up hatred due to its size. The trees can grow up to 90cm per year and could reach 61 metres high. People have a habit of planting them inappropriately, then failing to keep them under control.
Whilst legal disputes involving neighbours and leylandii run into thousands, others celebrate the beauty and grandeur of a rather spectacular tree that can take pride of place in a suitable setting. It grows into an impressive specimen and also plays host to many birds and other wildlife. Indeed, the National Pinetum in Bedgebury, Kent, is proud of what is believed to be the tallest and oldest leylandii hedge in Britain, measuring over 40 metres.
Conifers possess charms that should never be overlooked. These cone-bearing trees are hugely diverse and they hold impressive carbon-capturing statistics. The largest tree in the world, measured by volume, is a giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, in California, measuring 83m tall with a diameter of 11m at the base. It is considered to be middle-aged, being around 2,000 years old. The magnificent cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani, can easily grow to 35m high and almost as wide. This is the oldest cedar of all and there are some situated on the slopes of Mount Lebanon that are said to be 2,500 years old.
At the other end of the scale, many miniature conifers will not reach even 100cm tall at maturity. Pinus mugo is the dwarf mountain pine and it sits comfortably within a mixed border or can be grown in a large pot. There are hundreds of different shapes, colours, contrasting textures and forms of conifers that can provide colour and interest throughout the year. The pencil-slim Italian cypress is widely used in Mediterranean-style gardens here in the UK, creating vertical impact and drama all year round. In contrast, prostrate spreading junipers such as Juniperus horizontalis provide excellent ground cover and colour-changing foliage from summer through to winter.
Juniperus is known for its dark berry-like cones, which can be used in food dishes such as casseroles and stuffing. They are also the main flavouring for gin. However, the red, fleshy berries produced by Taxus baccata, the English yew, are highly toxic.
Some conifers, such as yew, respond extremely well to clipping, whilst others, including leylandii, go brown and won’t re-grow if you cut back into old wood.
Not all conifers are evergreen. The beautiful, native larch tree loses its soft, needle-shaped leaves in winter. Others change colour throughout the seasons, including Cryptomeria japonica, which is blue-green in spring, turns green during summer and rusty-red in winter. This conifer has soft, tactile foliage, whereas the monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana, has sharp foliage that can cut like a razor blade.
Never underestimate this amazing family of trees – there is something suitable to lend a touch of unique magic to any outdoor space.