Golden Conifers for Grey Days


How many words does a meteorologist have for rain? Sprinkles, showers, deluge or monsoon – they all add up to one thing – grey skies. Living in Seattle we get a fair amount of this wet stuff but to be honest it isn’t the rain that bothers me so much as the lack of sunshine. So to get me though the next few months I look for other ways to bring a little warmth back into my life and golden conifers are one of the best.

Truthfully I used to think conifers  were boring. That was in the days of those house-swallowing junipers and monstrous Leyland cypress planted as a hedge between zero lot line homes. Thankfully times have changed and there are so many fabulous colors, sizes and shapes to choose from that I have become a convert.

When selecting conifers with golden foliage I am seeking those that look as though they are supposed to be that color! There are some that quite frankly just look plain sick. So here are a few of my favorites, all of which I have grown for several years and have been accepted into Karen’s Foliage Hall of Fame.

Forever Goldie golden arborvitae (Thuja plicata ‘Forever Goldie’)

Early fall and Forever Goldie is adding more golden notes to its sculptured foliage

Early fall and Forever Goldie is adding more golden notes to its sculptured foliage

This beauty has surpassed all my expectations and proven itself an invaluable conifer for containers and the landscape. Unlike many plants with golden foliage this one does not scorch in full sun. It even transitions through bright chartreuse in summer to deep gold in fall and burnt orange tones in winter just in case you still thought conifers boring!

How can you feel chilly with glowing foliage like this?

How can you feel chilly with glowing foliage like this?

Start this off in a container as part of a mixed planting where it will be happy for several years. In the landscape it will eventually reach 15 – 20′ x 3′ and is drought tolerant once established. (USDA zones 3-7)

Golden Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-sugi’)

IMG_0855This is not a conifer for the small garden but if you have space this beacon will grab your attention. New growth is a pale yellow maturing to a soft gold so at any one time it appears to be almost variegated. I love it here against the evergreen Parney’s cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lacteus), heavily laden with clusters of ruby berries .

Great contrast with the fiery burgundy foliage of the sweetgum

Great contrast with the fiery burgundy foliage of the sweetgum

To its right is a sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) which creates a fabulous display that lasts for over two months.

Deer got the better of two younger conifers and did some damage by rubbing against this one but so far the tree has won!

Once established this grows fairly quickly to 10′ x 4′ in 10 years, maturing at 30′ x 10′ and is drought tolerant on our moisture retentive soil. USDA 6-9

Louie the Teddy Bear (syn. Louie eastern white pine) (Pinus strobus ‘Louie’)

Louie pine (in the foreground) shines all year but reaches superstar status in late fall and winter

Louie pine (in the foreground) shines all year but reaches superstar status in late fall and winter

This fluffy conifer leapt into my arms a few years ago. I’d purchased one for a client and it was a miracle that I parted with it. It was therefore pretty inevitable that I would simply have to get one for myself wasn’t it?

Just when I think I can’t stand another grey day, Louie makes me smile. He’s a modest size  reaching 3-4′ tall and 3′ wide in 10 years, 10-12′ x 6-8′ at maturity and will tolerate full sun  although he may initially get a little sunburned.

When backlit Louis is pure drama

When backlit Louie is pure drama

Place this where the sun (when we have it) can shine through and you’ll be rushing out to stroke this soft pine. How can you resist?

Louie makes a great container plant, perhaps underplanted very simply with black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) or makes a striking specimen in the landscape.

Hardy in zones 3-8

Golden Fern falsecypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Golden Fern’)


This is another example of buying a conifer for a client – plus one for myself! The feathery tips are gold with orange tones in winter while the shaded inner growth fades to light green with powder blue highlights. This is truly an elegant conifer for the discerning gardener.

It looks fabulous no matter what you put it with. I’ve recently used it in a design where it is adjacent to mahogany colored Fire Alarm coral bells (Heuchera) and Charity Oregon grape (Mahonia x media ‘Charity’) whose yellow shuttlecock flowers and deep green spiky leaves make a wonderful textural counterpoint while playing into the color theme. I wish I had taken pictures of that one as the colors showed much better than on my own!

On this wet gloomy day the blue tones don't photograph well!

On this wet gloomy day the blue tones don’t photograph well!

Young plants are great additions to a rockery or in containers. As they slowly mature to about 3′ x 3′ they become an interesting accent in the garden border. Keep this golden beauty protected from afternoon sun to keep it looking its best. Definitely one to look out for. USDA 4-8

What’s your favorite foliage to keep the winter blah’s at bay?


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9 thoughts on “Golden Conifers for Grey Days

  1. Mary Perez

    In case you’re wondering if anyone’s out there…love the entire cottage vignette–the hanging basket, containers, teapot, and in-ground plants. Mary Perez

  2. Deirdre

    My husband dislikes conifers in the garden. I think he thinks of them as non garden plants because there are so many in the wild here in the NW. I use broad leaf evergreens for garden bones. For color, I go for bark. I found a tiny, gold bark Japanese maple ‘Bihou’ at the flower and garden show last February. It doubled in size this year. It lights up a dark corner beautifully. I also have ‘Pacific Fire’ Vine Maple, Acer conspicuum ‘Pheonix’, yellow twigged dog wood, red twigged dogwood, and “Midwinter Fire’ dogwood.

    There’s a new winter Daphne ‘Brigg’s Moonlight’ I am dying to have. The ‘Rebecca’ winter Daphne has handsome varigation, too.

    I’m with you on gold plants needing to not look like they’re sick.

    1. Karen Chapman Post author

      I have had my eye on Bihou too – very attractive. Iv’e also used many of those you mention and like to use Acer p.’Winter Flame’ as a dwarf form of coral bark maple better suited to containers or small spaces.

  3. formandfoliage

    You know we’re on board with this idea! Nice post.

    And Deirdre, let your husband know that dwarf conifers really have nothing to do with the native species that abound in the PNW. There are so many gorgeous, textured colored specimens…and the springtime cones and new foliage are off the charts!

  4. Priscilla Brennan

    I too like the golden Hinokis- Chamaecyparis obtusa Verdoni and C. obtusa aurea nana as well as the Goldthread Cypress Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera Bright Gold. Another nice gold foliage is Picea orientalis Skylands – Golden Oriental Spruce and finally Pinus densiflora oculis-draconis Dragon’s Eye Pine both of which need more space.

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