When I look out my window, I have to laugh because one of the first things I see is a near perfectly round shrub with the name "Mr. Bowling Ball."
Also known as Thuja occidentalis 'Bobozam,' I came across this little gem during a garden tour a few years ago with other members of the Garden Writers Association.
I love this little guy. Not normally a fan of arborvitae, Mr. Bowling Ball has completely turned me around on this species of shrubs. He's medium green with tips that turn pale brown in fall and winter. He is small, only about three feet tall and wide, and he never needs trimming or shaped. He stays perfectly round, standing out among his neighbors in the garden. Those neighbors include a compact, slow growing juniper, another small shrub that although it tends to spread its wings a bit, takes well to a good pruning now and then to keep it within its confines.
One of my ideal in-my-head garden designs is a mostly conifer garden sprinkled with a few well behaved perennials. The perennials might bring contrasting color, but there are enough conifers out there in shades of blue, gray and a plethora of greens that color really wouldn't be much of a problem.
A conifer is basically any plant that forms its seeds on cones. While we're familiar with what we call "pinecones," pines aren't the only shrub or tree that makes cones. There also is spruce, fir, hemlock, yew, larch to name just a few. To complicate matters even more, not all conifers are evergreens. While there aren't many that drop their leaves in winter, those that do include Larix (larch), Gingko, pond and swamp cypress and my husband's favorite, Metasequoia glyptostoboides, or as we like to call it, Dawn Redwood.
Although he likes to lay claim to the half dozen or so Dawn Redwood trees in our back yard, the truth is, I discovered them more than 10 years ago on a field trip to Secrest Arboretum in Wooster. If you've never been, touring the arboretum is an excellent day trip to make during the season, particularly in spring when the crabapples are in bloom, but anytime is fine.
Away from the formal gardens and across from the crabapple groves at the arboretum is a stand of trees that look somewhat innocent and sort of blend in with the surrounding forest until you step up and take a closer look. A cousin to the giant redwoods in California, Dawn Redwood was once thought to be an extinct species known only through fossils.
The fun part is this tree wasn't discovered hundreds of years ago, but more recently, right smack in the middle of World War II. A small grove of live Metasequoia glyptospoboides was discovered in 1943 in China by a man known Zhan Wang. Wang was on an expedition from the National Bureau of Forest Research, but he fell ill during his journey so he stopped at a nearby agricultural school to rest up a bit before setting out again. While he was there, the school's principal told him about an unusual tree in a community known as Modaoxi. It took three days of maneuvering over mountains and valleys to get there, but once the trees were located, Wang took several specimens of branches and cones back to the NBFR for study. Research was delayed due to the war, but in 1946, the specimen was positively identified from collected fossils and a paper was published announcing the discovery of the "living fossil."
The discovery was huge. So much so that researchers from the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University sent out their own expedition to collect seeds and specimens from the newly discovered trees. The seeds they brought back were planted and seedlings were sent to arboretums and universities across the country. The stand of Dawn Redwood trees at Secrest Arboretum are from those seedlings.
Basically, this means that the small stand of Dawn Redwood trees in my own backyard are grandchildren to the specimen trees found in China in 1943. But even more interesting is knowing that this species of trees stood tall even when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Unlike Mr. Bowling Ball or the spreading juniper in my smaller conifer garden, Dawn Redwood is a fast grower. In five years, the 24-inch saplings we brought home from Secrest are well over eight feet tall. But that is nothing compared to what it will be someday. These trees reach well over 75 feet, but because of their fast growth habit, they don't make very good shade trees unless you have an entire grove. The bark is interesting as well, somewhat peeling and stringy, it turns a lovely cinnamon color as the tree matures. As a deciduous conifer, the tree drops its leaves in winter. The leaves look somewhat similar to evergreen needles from a distance, but they are not stiff or sharp.
One last thing to know about Dawn Redwood is that deer find them particularly tasty. The first few seedlings we planted were nothing but chewed off sticks by spring, prompting us to cage the trees for a couple years until they grew large enough to withstand a bit if chewing.
Who says you have to settle for only flowers in your garden? Bring in some interesting conifers to spice things up a bit.