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O, Christmas Tree!
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow
by Liesbeth Leatherbarrow

Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds).

December 12, 1999

Choosing evergreen trees for year-round pleasure in the garden.

For those of us immersed in the traditions of Christmas, 'tis truly the season for decking the halls with boughs of holly and transforming every conifer imaginable into magical displays of colour and light. The modern custom of adorning evergreen trees in celebration of Christmas was initiated in the sixteenth century by the German religious leader, Martin Luther. However, the sacred nature of pine trees dates back to the ancient Romans, who decorated pines during Saturnalia, a mid-winter festival held in honour of their god Saturn.

It is small wonder that evergreens have been revered for centuries. In addition to providing essential forms of sustenance, their innate year-round beauty, variety of near-perfect shapes, wide range of intense green colours, redolent perfume, and longevity (the world's oldest-known living tree is a 4700-year-old bristle cone pine) amazed and attracted people then, as they still do now.

No Canadian garden is complete without at least one or two evergreen trees. Whether you choose spruce, pine, or fir, each plays a valuable role in the landscape. They provide:

  • a vivid backdrop and contrasting texture to annuals and perennials in the mixed borderan effective windbreak when planted on the north or northwest edge of a garden

  • an excellent source of shade when planted on the south or southwest edge of a garden

  • a practical foundation planting that disguises both during summer and winter

  • a screen for privacy from neighbours and passers-by

  • a source of beauty, colour and contrast, especially when laden with snow or rimmed with hoarfrost, in what might otherwise be a dreary winter garden.


Fir trees (Abies spp.), especially balsam firs, are quintessential Canadian Christmas trees; for over a century they have been gracing our living rooms, laden with decorations, surrounded with gifts, and enveloped by that wonderfully fresh and pungent, slightly resinous aroma that so often triggers Christmas memories. Not only do fir trees make great Christmas trees, the dwarf varieties, especially, are also perfect specimens for Canadian mixed borders and rock gardens.

Fir trees which are relatively shade-tolerant evergreens, thrive in cool, moist conditions and prefer a spot that is sheltered from drying winds. They are usually narrow and conical in shape and are covered in short blunt needles that are flat, friendly (not razor sharp like spruce needles!), and coloured a rich green. The undersides of fir needles are usually lighter in colour than the uppers, and often marked by a longitudinal, white line. Colourful, erect fir cones are at their loveliest in summer; once autumn arrives, they disintegrate and fall to the ground, dispersing their seeds on the way down.

The resin that gives fir trees its spicy fragrance has been put to good use over the centuries. It has been used variously to produce medication for pulmonary complaints, a varnish for water colours, a seal for birch bark canoe seams, and a glue to secure microscope cover slips.

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is a slender species that can reach a height of 50 feet or more so give it lots of room to grow! It is relatively short-lived in cultivation (about 40 years) but is worth planting for its lovely bluish green needles and pleasing spicy fragrance. 'Nana' is a very hardy dwarf variety that is less that 3 feet tall at maturity and well-suited to a partially shaded site.

White or silver fir (Abies concolor) is the fir species most amenable to cultivation in the fairly warm climate of eastern Canada. For a fir tree, it is quite heat and drought tolerant and its columnar stature and uniform needle colour - a pale bluish green on both sides - make it an attractive backdrop for perennial and mixed borders. However, the species can reach a height of 80 feet at maturity, so most city dwellers would be well-advised to seek out 'Compacta', a cultivar whose mature height does not exceed 7 feet.


At this time of year, there is nary an urban spruce tree (Picea spp.) in sight that isn't festooned with strings and strings of twinkling lights, lightening up our dark, northern skies.

In the garden, spruce are relatively stiff conical or columnar evergreens with short horizontal, upward, or downward pointing branches. The leaves, or needles, are arranged spirally on short pegs and their colour varies from deep green to glaucous blue. They enjoy rich, moist, well-drained soil.

Colorado sprucePicea pungens) is the most widely planted of all evergreens. It is extremely hardy, varies considerably in colour from green to rich blue-green, and boasts elegantly drooping branches that sweep the earth below. However, it grows so rapidly that it eventually becomes much too big for the average city lot.

If you must plant a full-sized Colorado spruce (the one that your grade three child brings home from the plant-a-tree program), then please make sure that you plant it at least 10 feet from anything else, giving it plenty of space to grow. Lopping off lower branches to compensate for our own planting mistakes is humiliating for a spruce tree. Mother Nature made Colorado spruce branches to touch the earth; please leave them where they were intended.

Many dwarf cultivars of Colorado spruce have been developed and are an excellent alternative to the full-blown variety, providing the same benefits without taking over. Try globe-shaped 'Cecilia' (3') or 'Globe' (1.5'), conical 'Corbet' (4x2'), pyramidal 'Fat Albert' (10x6') or 'R.H. Montgomery' (6x6'), or the weeping 'Pendula' (10x7'). 'Pendula' can be trained on a stake and then allowed to cascade onto the ground; left to its own devices it will form a sprawling, dense groundcover.

Several Norway spruce (Picea abies) are also welcome additions to the garden. "Compacta' forms a dense cone, 'Gregoryana' forms a slow-growing globe, 'Nidiformis' is bowl-shaped with up-curving branches, and 'Pendula' is a weeping variety.


Pine trees (Pinus spp.) have a much more open growth habit than their spruce cousins. Most are medium to tall dome-shaped trees although shorter, shrubby and dwarf varieties suitable for the home garden also exist. They sport long needles, compared to spruce trees, which are arranged in clusters of 2-5, depending on the species. Pines tolerate a variety of soil conditions, including poor, dry sites. They can, however, be a bit susceptible to winter's burning sun and drying winds.

Mugos are a popular choice among pine trees, frequently used for foundation plantings and rock gardens. These pines are usually multi-stemmed with dark green needles in bundles of two. Mugos are extremely variable in size. The dwarf variety, Pinus mugo pumilio ('Mops Mugo', 'Gnom', 'White Bud', 'Slowmound') is the best choice for an average-sized garden, but even it, left unpruned, can still reach a height of 10 feet. The semi-dwarf P. mugo rotundata grows to 20 feet, and a mature P. mugo rostrata, larger still, is actually too big for a city lot.

Keep mugo pines compact by removing half of the new growth on each growing tip or candle in late spring, just before the needle clusters opened.

The limber pine (Pinus flexilis), a native of the Canadian foothills, survives alkaline soil, wind, drought, and poor snow cover. It is frequently multi-stemmed, has bluish-green needles in bundles of five, grey bark, and light brown cones, and grows slowly to a maximum height of 30 feet. The limber pine presents a fascinating silhouette when sculpted by strong winds.

The slow-growing bristle-cone pine (Pinus aristata), which may eventually attain a height of 40 feet, also matures with an appealing twisted or irregular form. Its short needles, in clusters of five and flecked with resin, give bristle-cone pine branches a bottle-brush appearance.

The Swiss stone pine (Pinus cembra) is appreciated by gardeners for its neat conical shape, dense foliage, and long-lived needles which are dark green above, bluish white below, and arranged in bundles of five. Deep blue-violet cones remain on Swiss stone pines for three to four years before dropping; both birds and squirrels relish the large edible seeds.

The Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is pyramidal when young but becomes much more open and irregular in profile as it matures. It bears twisted, blue-green needles grouped in pairs, and attractive curved cones that grow on short stems. Eventually the grey bark on the upper trunk and branches peels back to reveal the light orange inner bark. Since Scots pine has a deep taproot, it may be successfully underplanted with small shrubs or perennials. Cultivars include: 'Fastigiata', a columnar form; 'Viridis Compacta' and 'Nana', both dwarf cultivars; 'Hillside Creeper', a useful groundcover that spreads about 10 feet; and 'French Blue Scotch', a large, blue-needled tree.

Liesbeth Leatherbarrow is a freelance garden writer who has enjoyed spending the last twenty years mastering the techniques of Chinook zone gardening in Calgary, Alberta. Liesbeth has written for several western gardening publications, including Gardens West and The Gardener for the Prairies. She has also co-authored three gardening books: The Calgary Gardener (with the Calgary Horticultural Society), The Calgary Gardener, Volume Two: Beyond the Basics (with Lesley Reynolds), and 101 Best Plants for the Prairies (with Lesley Reynolds), which will be available in bookstores in November, 1999.

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