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Arizona Cypress and other Winter Bloomers

February 4, 2009

By Eric Larson

qweI got an email from a writer working on a story about where to see flowers in New England, asking about year-round flowering here and elsewhere.  I didn’t have much to offer him or her (“Jamie” could be either), but there are a couple of factors that would enter into the discussion.

The first is ‘luck of the draw,’ or weather.  Some years we enjoy a real winter, like this year. When the temperature dips to six degrees F, and stays below freezing for days, it’s very hard for the winter-blooming plants to get up the gumption to flower. In other years, we have intermittent warm spells and the temperatures dip to only the teens, popping back up above freezing almost daily.  This allows plants like Winter-Jasmine to begin their sporadic bloom in mid-January.

The second factor is ‘micro-climate manipulation.’ We have some very protected areas here at Marsh Gardens where we have marginally hardy plants like Camellia growing. These lovely evergreen shrubs will bloom in December if you have them situated right, AND the weather cooperates. South facing structures, protection from winter winds, heavily mulched soils and even some watering will all affect a plant’s ability to cheat old man winter.  By the way, I have been asked about anti-desiccants as a way to keep especially broad-leaved evergreens from succumbing in the winter months. I don’t recommend it, because research has shown that within a day or so, the wind has flexed the leaves and branches of the plant so that the artificial cuticle of the spray literally cracks off and becomes useless.

The third factor is plant choice. This is a key in planning for winter bloom. The plants mentioned above provide winter bloom, but there are plenty more to choose from. By choosing cultivars and hybrids of Camellias, you can stretch the bloom time from October and November all the way to April, provided the weather cooperates.

These shrubs along with the viny Winter-Jasmine, the leggy Oregon Grape-Holly, Osmanthus, some Salix (Willow) species and Fragrant Honeysuckle can extend the bloom season right through the dead of winter. There are also some perennial herbaceous plants that will add to the panoply of winter bloom. One genus to look at is Helleborus, the Christmas- and Lenten-Rose tribe. Bulbs can also be used, starting with Snowdrops, then progressing to Aconites, early-blooming Narcissus and the Miniature or Dwarf Iris, which bloom in very early spring.

One of my favorite evergreens is the Arizona Cypress, Cupressus arizonica. The genus name comes from the classical Greek name (kuparissos) for the Cypress species in the Mediterranean, C. sempervirens.  There are about fifteen species in the genus, all of which occur in arid or Mediterranean-like climates: Arizona, California, the coastal areas of Spain, France, Italy, Greece, etc.  The genus belongs to the Cypress family, Cupressaceae.

This tells us something about their preferred cultural conditions. Arid (not humid) climate, well-drained soils, not too cold in the winter (although the Arizona Cypress will survive in extremely cold temperatures, it’s a function of soil moisture as well as protection from wind and lack of competition).   They will grow well for us here in the lower New England area, but some caution must be taken in siting the plant.  Full sun is a necessity, as well as the well-drained soil commandment.

Our summers get a bit humid, which can cause some problems: there is a fungal disease that affects them, and they seem to out-grow the limits of the root system to provide structural support. I have seen them get floppy.  One I planted at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, I wired to a downspout to provide extra support. It worked well and the plant is almost forty feet tall now.

Michael Dirr in his ‘Manual of Woody Landscape Plants’ goes to some length to cast aspersions on the use of C. arizonica in the landscape of the Southeastern United States.  Dirr’s home territory is the University of Georgia, and he minces few words in describing the plantings in that part of the country.  Obviously not one of his favorite trees, part of his viewpoint has to do with locale. Indeed the humid summers of the Southeast are not the best situation for this species.

There are so many reasons why I like this plant though. Its blue-green foliage is a great counterpoint to many other colors in the landscape. I have it growing next to a Purple Smoke-Tree which makes a dynamic color combination as well as textural: the spiky scale-leaf foliage of the Cypress versus the soft rounded leaves of Cotinus, and then the fluffy inflorescences during the summer.

The blue-green works well in moderating bright colors as well: golden thread-leaf False-Cypress is also a good companion. Another aspect that attracts me is that the foliage, when brushed up against, emits a wonderful citrus scent. This subtle attribute should not be discounted: plant an Arizona Cypress near the entrance to your pool. The leaves are scaled, not needled, and are very soft. As you and your guests pass by, you will enjoy the distinctive aroma of this plant.

One more asset to convey is the fast growth of the plant. Two feet a year is not uncommon in our area. The photo below is of an Arizona Cypress that was planted 5 years ago as a foot-tall specimen (again, think big but plant small).  It is now topping out around ten feet.  As part of an evergreen hedge or windbreak, you can’t do better than that for growth rate.

Plant Arizona Cypress as a specimen, in the shrub border, as part of a hedge or windbreak, but make sure it’s in the sun.  Plant several because you will be tempted to use some of the branches in your next Christmas wreath.

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