An Evergreen State of Mind


I’ve been in a very evergreen state of mind of late. It must be the season, in my northern temperate world of Toronto replete with denuded trees, save for the evergreens. Even then, the bright greens of the growing season have given way to the drabber blush or bronzy hues of foliage in dormancy.

While living in an urban area, we suffer the heat island effect with lots of asphalt, concrete, lights and the crush of human bodies. Yet, we still cling to the romantic notion of the pioneer days of a cold winter with pure white flakes of snow coating the ground. We are lucky if we get anything substantial snow-wise before the end of the year and if it comes, it quickly turns to a murky mush with salt sprays and residues from oily vehicles. Such is the urban existence. One can escape by perhaps gazing out a window to our soul, our garden, taking a walk through the local ravines or a trip further afield to areas outside of the city. A quicker respite can be had through the pages of books.

My winter soul exposed - northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) encompasses the back garden.

My winter soul exposed – northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) encompasses the back garden.

As gardeners, when do we have time to peruse books?  This is the best time of year to read, especially if you live in the north and your garden has bedded down for the winter. No doubt you might be thinking of what to do with the garden next year; what species to add, perhaps which to give up and replace or maybe which to thin out and give away to worthy recipients. Books are full of ideas. Team Wrangler, Carole Sevilla Brown asked us for our picks to recommend, since it can be a very daunting task with selection, especially for the newly exposed gardener. And since it’s Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, the equivalent of the day after the American Thanksgiving Day, with all the pent up cash and gift cards, I thought I’d make a shameless plug for the NPWG Team Books and books recommended by the Team.

There is one that I didn’t include but which is an essential addition to your reference collection, particularly if you are a botanist, naturalist or horticulturist with a coniferous bent, or if you just love conifers – Conifers of the World: The Complete Reference by James E. Eckenwalder.

conifersRevel in the up-to-date descriptions of all the true conifers of the world: 545 species of trees and shrubs within the 704 pages of descriptions, 67 colour photos, 295 b/w photos, 240 line drawings, 67 distribution maps, plus a handy glossary and appendices. Having it alphabetically arranged by genus solidifies its place among quick reference guides and encyclopaedias. One of the appendices in the book offers distinctive features or other characteristics as guides for selection and planting cultivars by region. Of interest to most readers will be lists of conifers cultivated under various conditions and to achieve different effects, by region: Northeastern North America, Pacific Northwest, Southwestern United States and Southeastern United States.

From the UK publisher:

“New identification guides for the families and genera are based on foliage features and are easier to use than traditional conifer keys. Eckenwalder shares the reasoning behind his taxonomic decisions, many of which are unique to this book, reflecting a comprehensive re-evaluation of conifer classification.”

I could be biased, since I know Dr. Eckenwalder. His office is just down the hall from me and he has helped with the identification of some plants in ZooWoods, a small teaching and research site next to our building. As soon as I received my copy, I trotted down the hall to get it personally signed. The inscription read,“The conifers at home are a doorway to their cousins throughout the world, enjoy.” It is a joy to read about my native species and also read accounts of their compatriots including those that have migrated here. Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is the most widely distributed pine species in the world and the second most widely distributed conifer after common juniper (Juniperus communis). Natural variation provides a great opportunity for cultivars of which about 150 have been described. It is a popular species for the Christmas tree industry and only recently has become invasive.

I delved further into this evergreen state of mind with a companion to the book. For leisurely reading, one must have something to sip. The vast array of libations offered in elaborate gift packs at Christmas has proven very tempting. I was getting into the spirit perusing the conifer book, sipping on a slim bottle of Scots pine ale which is only available seasonally. I flipped through the book to one of my favourite evergreens, native, of course – the northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), for a few more tidbits. Arborvitae, “tree of life” was conferred on this species by Jacques Cartier in the winter of 1535-36, after being informed by friendly indigenous peoples of the life saving qualities in the foliage. The vitamin C contained in the leaves prevented scurvy. Indeed, cedar had a vast number of medicinal uses developed by the natives. A fragrant decoction to fight fevers propelled the introduction of the tree to Europe by at least 1558, the earliest known North American tree introduction.

Here’s to good books and good health!


Another coniferous reference book:

A Handbook of the World’s Conifers by Aljos Farjon, a two-volume set covering all 615 species of conifers within 1150 pages. More species defined than Eckenwalder’s tome and shows that classification is always contentious and open to individual interpretation. Super hefty and pricey.


© 2012 – 2013, Janet Harrison. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. […] Evergreens, either conifers or broad-leaved evergreens, offer much needed winter shelter to local wildlife. If you plant one with flowers, fruit or berries you add another layer of food source to your garden.  From a design perspective, evergreens are the bones of your garden. They define areas, provide structure and winter interest, and are ideal backdrops for an array of plants. […]

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