Monday, April 12, 2010

Snow White and the Seven Dwarf Evergreens

Snow White was a bit of a dope, wasn't she?  Depending on who is doing the telling, she accepted not one, but three different poisoned items from a stranger.  The dwarves bailed her out for the first two bonehead mistakes, but the third time, when she ate a poisoned apple, they couldn't figure out how to help her.  So they did what any normal persons would have and encased her in glass in the forest.  This story has a classic moral: be on good terms with your stepmother.  And never, ever be better looking.

Snow White might not have been the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to her stepmother, but the dwarves had the wicked queen's number.  They warned S.W. not to talk to strangers because they knew the queen had it out for her.  They couldn't be with her all the time to protect her from her own stupidity; they had day jobs in a mine.  [You will recall their unassailable financial advice, from the classic Disney movie: "It ain't no trick to get rich quick when you dig, dig, dig with a shovel or a pick, in a mine.  We dig up diamonds by the score, a thousand rubies, sometimes more...."]  Between grubbing up jewels and doing triage with a comatose S.W. on a fairly regular basis, they must have been busy.

Even though these seven chaps were eminently useful, it's a small miracle (no pun intended) they turned out as well as they did.  What kind of cruel parents name their kids Dopey, Lazy, Sleazy, Bashful, etc.?  That's just asking for a host of psychological issues to manifest themselves.  At first glance, Doc lucked out in the naming lottery, but perhaps Doc is short for docket, dockyard, or document.  But all in all, they seemed to lead a charmed life: a private cottage in the forest with buckets of gems and a princess for a housekeeper.

Now to segue gracefully from useful persons of reduced stature with oddish names, to useful evergreens of similar build with oddish names.  [For exhaustive pictures on the subject, look elsewhere, namely Conifers: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, volumes 1 and 2 by D.M. van Gelderen and J.R.P. van Hoey Smith.  For a cursory glance or completely superficial gloss, you've come to the right place.]  Some dwarf evergreens have really catchy or evocative names.  Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Wissel's Saguaro',  Pinus banksiana 'Uncle Fogy', or Picea sitchensis 'Papoose.'  Also Picea pungens 'Porcupine'.  Others seem to have lost out on the plant naming lottery just like Dopey and Sneezy: Pinus mugo 'Big Tuna', Pinus contorta 'Inverewe', and Pinus sylvestris 'Skogbygdi'.  Quite a range, isn't there?  

Certain breeders (I won't name names) seem to have run out of creative steam and gone for "apt" instead.  Witness Picea glauca 'Tiny', Picea abies 'Midget', Picea abies 'Dumpy', Cedrus deodara 'Pygmy', Juniperus communis 'Miniature' and Pinus sylvestris 'Scrubby.'  Just makes you want to dash out and locate these little gems, doesn't it?  Thankfully, more than the mere pedestrian are in evidence.  Plenty of magical or mythical creatures are included: Picea glauca 'Elf', Picea x mariorika 'Gnom', Picea glauca 'Pixie', and Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Leprechaun' and 'Golden Fairy.'  Disney seems to have a small market share in the category with Picea abies 'Cinderella' and Abies koreana 'Pinocchio.'  And apparently Doc got into the plant breeding business, for we have Tsuga canadensis 'Doc's Choice.'  I feel I also must mention Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Alaska,' even though it resembles the offspring of lichen and dryer lint.

Why would I want one of those dreadful things, you may ask.  Good question.  (First let's get some technical nonsense out of the way, courtesy of the British Conifer Society: "dwarf" means a growth rate of 1-6 inches a year and a height (after ten years) of 1-6 feet.) How about some texture, color, shape, and winter interest in your garden?  Don't take my word for it.  No less an authority than Adrian Bloom, plantsman and horticulturist of worldwide repute, has written Gardening With Conifers for you doubters.  He makes a convincing argument that dwarf conifers are indispensable in rock gardens, troughs, containers, and wildlife gardens.  Those are a just few reasons to plant botanical friends of Snow White.  Their smaller size merits them a place in today's smaller lot sizes, as well.

Picea glauca 'Fat Albert' with a cone.  This evergreen is actually in the "semi-dwarf" category of growth.

The dwarf of choice, or at least, of circumstance, in my yard is Picea 'Fat Albert.'  I have had no less than three comments about how I've planted it too close to the house.  "Those things'll top thirty feet!" said one sage garden tourist.  I must have taken my Paxil that day because I managed to stop gritting my teeth long enough to mention it was a semi-dwarf that would mature at about fifteen feet.  I expect the root restrictions (it's in a raised bed surrounded by timbers) and competition from copious neighbors will curb it a bit, too.  I would love to add another dwarf to the mix, but finding them here is a bit of a challenge.  We are, generally speaking, a bit behind the times up here when it comes to bantam evergreens.  Not much is available selection-wise at our local nurseries.  (I would love for some enterprising Alaskan nursery to make me eat crow on this.)  For some pictures of a lovely nursery in a warmer clime (and some neat propagation and field shots) that specializes in dwarf conifers, try here. Their mail order/internet site is here.

Alas, I have just remembered I do have a larger dwarf population that just one, in the guise of three cheerful specimens of Picea abies 'Ohlendorfii', pictured below, with Calamagrostis brachytricha in autumn.  But that is (really) all the dwarf evergreens I have.  Honest.  Just like Snow White, I could use a little help now and again from a few diminutive chaps around the garden.  On my wish list of useful dwarves (or is it dwarfs?): Picea glauca 'Rainbow's End' and 'Acrocona Pusch'.  You?

Have any small-statured evergreens?  Or perhaps treasured memories of Snow White that I have sullied with my bit of fluff? 


  1. I wasn't quite sure where you were going with this one at first glance, but it gave me a good chuckle. I love your description of Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Alaska.' But I think 'Fat Albert" is without a doubt the best name!
    My dwarf evergreens are limited to Alberta spruce and, of course, some English boxwoods.

  2. Dwarf conifers will reach 10'- 30' here, depending on genus species.

    Dwarf conifers peak when hydrangeas are brown sticks. Perfect companions.

    Dear resistant, drought tolerant, bug proof. Perfect plants.

    Love your take on SW !!!!

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. Hi Christine~~ Well this just proves that in gardens and fairy tales SIZE MATTERS. And maybe a few other genres as well. Ha, ha...

    I'm not sure if this is hardy in Alaska but have you seen Thuja occindentalis 'Teddy.' It's as soft as a teddy bear and very slow growing. By the way, Alan Bloom is great, I agree. And so is Paxil.

    I love the cute and sometimes bizarre names the plant breeders come up with. Equally entertaining, I recently discovered, are FONT names. I was pleasantly entertained while digging around the Internet looking for something different to download.

    There must be some kind of anecdotal garden lesson in the song too. Dig, dig, dig to get rid of them weeds... or something like that.

  4. I must admit, that I'm always trying to discourage people from using conifers...but thats only because here in Durban, the heat and humidity is like slow torture to them. They look more Grumpy than Happy.

    But I can imagine having a similar appreciation, if I lived in cooler climes. I love the look of Fat Albert - now that's a sentence I thought I'd never write.

  5. Your take on SW is fabulous and very well said. Had me laughing out loud.

    Ah, dwarf conifers...we don't use them much around here other than the dreaded juniper bush. Oh how I HATE junipers. It seems that every house around here built prior to 1990 has a forest of these rat nests in their front yard. The only way to completely remove them is with a 4x4 truck with a tow hitch. For nicer conifers though it just doesn't get cold enough here and it's too hot and dry in the summer.

  6. I do not have a one Christine so cannot comment on whether they would be Happy or Grumpy in my garden. But Sneezy it would be.
    I had no idea where you were going with the Snow White story there but it was a marvelous story and I was so enjoying it all. I never thought of Snow White quite that way but you are right the girl was an air head. LOL!

  7. LOL! Very interesting and funny. I was never fond of snow white's dress, personally. And I don't like her moral character either...taking up residence with 7 men...creepy! So the fact that she's not the sharpest knife in the drawer isn't a surprise to me, although admittedly, I never considered this point of view. :)
    Great segue into the conifers, although I like the conifers better than the creepy little dwarf men who insist on encasing sleeping girls in glass. :)

  8. I have no conifers. Love your Snow White. But wait, don't know what your 'Inverewe' looks like, but mine was a magnificent garden in Scotland!

  9. @pamsenglishgarden

    Will try very hard next time to get to the point in a more timely manner...shame on me, being timely is rule number 3 at our house! Glad you stuck with it till the end though, thanks.


  10. @Elephant's Eye
    My ignorance is in evidence yet again. Thanks for filling us in, EE, and here I thought "Inverewe" was some unpronounceable word designed to be just discouraging enough that we would all use a trademarked name instead. For my pennance, I hope to visit that garden someday and voice my apologies in person!


  11. Helou there and thank you for visiting my blog. To answer your question...I use a Canon Powershot sx20.

  12. I really enjoyed your column on conifers as I have killed many of them over the years. My favorite oddball one was whipcord arborvitae. It looked like green dreadlocks; great form and texture but died quickly. Another favorite that unforunately died fast was a golden oriental spruce. When it was alive, it was beautiful. Now, I'm trying to be smarter about my selections!

  13. great post on dwarfs! here in washington dc this winter we received a ton of snow-45"- and i lost more than half of my precious dwarf conifers. it didnt seem to matter if they were tall and skinny or short and round: the heavy, wet snow did not play favorites! glad to see yours a looking good!

  14. I'm actually interested to see what suggestions you get. Dwarf conifers are something I'd love to add more of, especially if I could find one that took shade. The only dwarf I have is Juniper 'Gold Cone' it reminds me a little of an Alberta Spruce, but the new growth on it right now is a yellowish/gold color. I just planted it in the fall.
    I always found Snow White a little scary, but I did love how the forest animals helped her with her cleaning. Wish I could get some squirrels to do some housework for me.

  15. Love the 'Fat Albert' ...then again I love evergreens. I know the cones can be messy but I want green year round!

  16. Christine, does Songsparrow Nursery deliver to Alaska? They have lots of amazing miniature and dwarf conifers from which to choose.

    This was a darling post BTW.~~Dee

  17. Congratulationg for your blog, i loved!
    Is very interesting, 'cause I live in Brazil, and everithing is diferent.
    It's amazing to know how do you work with gardens in a place so cold, at the same time so beautiful.
    Two different worlds... Each specie, each context, garden style, etc.

  18. I'm not one for growing dwarf conifers since I live in pine and spice forest. My son gave me a dwarf Alberta spruce, Picea something? Fun post Christine.

  19. @Henrique
    Thanks for visiting the subarctic! My brother lived in Manaus for a couple of years and loved the heat, a nice change from our cold weather. I agree that many tropical plants are really different from the temperate types: a totally different look. We Alaskans would appreciate it if you could send about twenty degrees our way;)


  20. Hi, I never knew Alaska could be such a wonderful place for gardening. Does sound very different from rest of the gardens around the globe!

  21. Howdy Christine,
    It's all sorta relative with the weather right ?
    Been starting plants from seeds indoors under lights for about 7 years now...not sure where I'll put everything but it's just something I have to do each year.

  22. @Christine B.

    It's a big change move to Manaus, even for me!
    Brazil is sooo big, like USA. Here, in São Paulo, I'm 1680 miles away from Manaus.
    Your brother knows better than anyone what is the meaning of "heat" and "rain". And you know better than anyone what is the meaning of "could" and "snow".
    Im between these climatic conditions (66 Fº). Therefore, we almost can work with all kinds of species.

    I'll follow your blog...
    Thank you Christine!
    You are very friendly!
    Take care!

  23. My first sunflower plant last was a real dwarf, just about 2 and a half feet. The mother must had improved coded DNA in the seeds. Now the second generation sunflowers are generally a lot bigger. Better food now, or better care or better weather?..


  24. Alaska!!! How exotic. I would like to go there someday. I will follow your blog with much curiosity.

  25. Christine, A funny and informative read. Lichen and dryer lint, indeed! My garden doesn't have nearly enough conifers, and because it's pretty dwarf itself, these guys would probably be good selections, funny names or no. Thanks for the ideas.

    I should point out, though, that according to surveys, six out of seven dwarfs aren't Happy.

  26. Believe it or not, 'Fat Albert' is on my wish list, never to be fulfilled. It is a gorgeous little tree, and I love the color. Yes, you can buy him this far south, but you shouldn't. The tree look great a few years but ultimately perishes during one of our hot summers. But I am tempted! Maybe I could get a fan and blow cool air on it during July and August?

    I loved this post. It was full of great info and it made me laugh!

  27. What timing! Our rock garden society just yesterday heard from Gerald P. Kral, a noted conifer expert from Rochester, NY, and he especially extolled the dwarfs, minis, and extreme minis, with photos from his own garden and some incredible conifer gardens in the Czech Republic. Of all the names on the 2.5 pages of plant list he gave out, the sweetest is, Picea pungens 'I Am Nice.' I came home with a wee Picea mariana 'Nana,' my first conifer ever!

  28. Apropos of not much, did you know that there are a series of Yakashimanum Rhododdendrons named after the Seven Dwarves?
    sadly only Bashful and Dopey got an RHS Award of Garden Merit (which must have made Grumpy mightily pissed off).
    The other oddity is that Rhododendron Happy is not Happy but Hoppy for some odd nomenclatural reason.
    So now you know.

  29. We need to hear and SEE much more about dwarf conifers here in Alaska. We have the perfect climate for many of the very best. Amazed that nobody referenced Iseli Nursery in Oregon: Mr. Iseli was the Adrian Bloom-and-then-some of the US. Although the nursery is wholesale, there is a wealth of photo. etc. info here. If you didn't like dwarf conifers before looking here, you will be absolutely hooked after taking a look.


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