Cheerful Conifers: Some Year-Round Stars (With Photos)

To finish up my Fall Planting for Winter Interest series, I’m excited to share some of my favorite conifers that look awesome in winter.

Conifers are one of the strongest evergreen elements in a garden. They’re usually fairly tough once established, and there’s an enormous variety in textures and colors – from stately and stiff to informal and flowing, blues and greens and golds and speckles – and they’re easy to fit into a variety of planting schemes.

They also usually do well in containers, since they don’t lose too much water from their leaves or need constant upkeep, and are almost universally deer-resistant, though the fresh soft leaves of any new plant are likely to be nibbled.

Here are five of my favorites for a good winter show:

Abies koreana 'Horstmann Silberlocke'Abies koreana ‘Horstmann Silberlocke’ is a lovely green Korean Fir, with a   special attribute – the needles curl back on themselves to expose the silvery undersides, providing a wonderful look of freshly-fallen snow on the branches. They get to 8-10’ tall in time and have a nice upright cone-shaped habit.

It would make a wonderful indoor Christmas Tree, and when you’re ready to plant it in the garden, try it in the same area as a Yaku hybrid Rhododendron, with its snowy new growth.

Pinus thunbergii 'Thunderhead' candle

Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’ is a fantastic medium-sized version of the Japanese Black Pine, with glossy green needles and a stiff habit. It gets to 10-20 feet tall and has a very stately, upright habit. Why do I love Thunderhead so? It’s the gigantic bright white candles that come up in spring – you can see them just getting started here (Picture taken in early December).

Pinus thunbergii 'Thunderhead'Thunderhead’s clean habit, lovely foliage, and tough-as-nails demeanor  make it a standout at any time of the year, but I live for those tall white new shoots that start in December and keep growing through April, when they burst open into fresh new needles.

I’ve had great results with Thunderhead in a garden with terrible soil where it was neglected after the first year, and in another commercial landscape where it’s exposed to constant salt wind from the ocean less than three blocks away. Just make sure you give the “Thunderosa Pine”, as I call it, good drainage and full sun.


Picea pungens ‘The Blues’ is an awesome weeping form of the Colorado  Blue Spruce which only gets as tall as you stake it – so it can be a huge focal point if you attach it to a tall lodge pole, or a foreground specimen that will make your other shrubs shine.

The puffy silvery-blue branches cascade all around and look fantastic. I love to use these on a mound so it shows off that tumbling habit. They also grow gorgeously around small boulders or rock accents. I love using Blue Spruces with pale pink flowers – try ‘The Blues’ with a big, loosely-growing ‘Barnsley’ Bush Mallow for that pretty pink and blue harmony.

Blue Spruce with Flower Carpet Rose

Or, if you prefer upright Blue Spruces, try them with a flowing pink Appleblossom Flower Carpet Rose (Rosa x ‘Noamel’). I love the Flower Carpet line because they have proven extremely disease-resistant and don’t take any special skill to prune.

Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Jubilee'Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Jubilee’ is an Alaskan “Cedar” (it’s really a False Cypress) with an interesting, coat-hanger look to its branches. It shoots upwards and sends out swerving side-branches which weep and sometimes swoop upwards again. It’s really a wild looker.

My photo to the right is of a young one – but check out the link above for some photos of mature trees – you can see that exciting habit play out.

I love to plant these as the stand-alone tall plant in a bed. They get to about 12-18’ in time, and look fantastic with purple foliage or any kind of variegation.

You can play up the bold architectural look by pairing them with strong, stiff plants with foliage that doesn’t move much; or, you can play up the wild informality of it all by using soft plants that wave in the wind – grasses, Variegated Red-Twig Dogwood, etc.

Cupressus glabra ‘Chaparral’ is a Cupressus glabra 'Chaparral'fantastic whitish-grey Arizona Cypress that shows off gorgeously with any kind of dark foliage – either purple or green. They get to 10-12’ tall in ten years – taller in time – and have such gorgeous color and a lovely feathery look.

I’d use them in the same garden as Calluna  vulgaris ‘Velvet Fascination’, a pretty Scotch Heather with greyish-silver foliage and fresh white flowers in late summer; add some cool purple flowers, and some bold foliage interest to finish out the area.

Calluna vulgaris 'Velvet Fascination'

I hope this gives you some great inspirations on how to use some of these fun conifers in your garden.  With so many varieties, it’s easy to see why conifers are so often the stars of our winter gardens.


  1. says

    I’m so with you – I think we’re in for a resurgance in conifer popularity! With the wild foliage that’s all the rage nowadays, conifers have something really special to offer.

    I’m a big fan of what I call “woodland tropical”, with gorgeous, lush, wet foliage, conifers used as backdrop and accents (with a few non-greens to spice things up), big leaves and bold flower and foliage color interspersed among, so it looks like a tropical rain forest. If only we had monkeys here in the northwest!

  2. Kate Zenna says

    My two year old Horstmann’s Silberlocke Korean Fir is losing needles at the top, which it did not do before, I do not see any pests on it, but am concerned if this is a sign of a problem with the plant.

    • says

      Kate, I wish I could be more helpful, but it’s nearly impossible to diagnose plants from afar like this. My immediate concern is water – is it possible it’s getting too much or too little? Is it possible any woody stems are buried (only the roots should be buried, never the trunk) as that can cause rot and death easily to conifers. Beyond checking those basics, I can only suggest you contact your local agricultural extension and ask what types of pest can hit that kind of plant in your area and cause defoliation.

      Good luck, and if you figure it out, be sure and let me know!

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