In other seasons, people tend to breeze right by conifers in favor of, say, roses that scent summer evenings or crabapple trees that flower in the spring. But in winter—especially after a dusting of snow—pines and other conifers are the plants that shine.
Recently, we ran a blog about cultivating awe on winter walks, on how to shift your energy and attention outward instead of inward for emotional well-being. One easy way to do that at the Chicago Botanic Garden or anywhere you walk is to seek out the company of evergreens. That includes most conifers, which are plants that produce cones—bald cypress, spruce, fir, etc.
As horticulturist for the Dwarf Conifer Garden, I look at evergreens all the time, but I’m still inspired by their majesty, as well as their ability to transform and brighten the landscape. The charm of conifers is subtle; you just have to slow down and get up close.
Here are a few suggestions on what to look for:
Oriental arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis)
A mounded conifer, this tree has small, thorny fruit that matures in the late fall, revealing small, rose-shaped cones that persist through winter.
Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris ‘Gold Coin’)
This pine’s stunning golden color intensifies as the temperature drops; the tree seems to glow in contrast with the rest of the landscape.
Creeping Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata)
This shrub changes color from a bright green in the summer to a bronze-purple in the winter.
Viola blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Viola’)
Its remarkable blue/silver color comes from epicuticular wax, a compound the tree produces as a defense mechanism to protect needles from damage, including moisture loss and UV damage.
Eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)
Lean in to this conifer. It has an earthy scent reminiscent of lemon and pineapple when the needles and fruit are crushed.
You’ll find your own moments of awe this winter. A good starting place is on the grand sandstone steps of the Dwarf Conifer Garden. Let your ears, nose, and open mind be your guide.