Next Tuesday is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the day when the sun makes its lowest arc in the skies of the northern hemisphere. This astronomical event has been celebrated from time immemorial, as people eagerly anticipated the return of longer days and a greener landscape. Light – in the form of candles, yule logs, and bonfires – has been central to the rituals, perhaps as a means of welcoming the sun’s “return.” Evergreens have long been associated with these winter festivals, as well. By retaining their outward vitality through the coldest and darkest days, evergreens offer a hopeful symbol of perseverance and rejuvenation. Thus, in honor of this year’s winter solstice, let’s consider one of the most prominent evergreens in Queset Garden: the dwarf Alberta spruce.
Here’s one of the 17 specimens in Queset Garden.
Its conical shape and dense foliage suit the formal design of the garden. Groups of dwarf Alberta spruce, planted alongside other evergreens, establish the garden’s scale, boundaries, and mood.
This cultivar is slow growing, averaging 2 - 4 inches of growth per year according to the Missouri Botanical Garden. This is fortunate, for a faster growing plant would quickly overwhelm a garden of this size. The trees, which are growing in full sun, have a soft appearance and texture, unlike most spruces which have sharp needles. Light green growing tips create a bright aspect.
The foliage is so dense that it seems impenetrable and, indeed, it does provide good shelter to small animals. Upon closer examination, you’ll see the short, 4-sided needles and little “pegs” where old needles had been attached to the branch. These features are typical of spruces. If you roll a spruce needle between your fingers, it will be easy to feel the angles.
The dwarf Alberta spruce is named for a distinctive white spruce individual that was discovered in Alberta, Canada in 1904. White spruce is a cold-hardy tree that grows across Canada and the northern United States. The original plant was a naturally occurring “sport,” a genetic mutation of the species. Since that time, this dwarf form has been propagated by stem cuttings to preserve its distinctive features. Thus, the dwarf Alberta spruce is a cultivar, a cultivated variety that is perpetuated by human activity.
Picea glauca (White spruce)
Though the two trees look quite different, the dwarf shares some of its parent’s features including a preference for a cool, moist environment, acidic soil, and ample sunlight. They differ in size, shape, color, and cones. Yes, both trees are conifers, but the dwarf Alberta spruce rarely produces cones. This is another reason why they are propagated vegetatively. Some plants exhibit reversion back to the growth habit of typical white spruce. The combination of dwarf and ancestor results in a peculiar plant.
Foliage of a Dwarf Alberta Spruce, with a branch showing reversion
to the normal White Spruce growth habit .
Slow growing and easily shaped, the dwarf Alberta spruce has found many uses in the garden. It is planted on lawns and in beds. It is also sculpted into topiaries, planted in containers, installed beside doorways, and decorated as Christmas trees. Renowned horticulturist, Michael Dirr suggests that “It is probably the best known and most widely sold dwarf conifer in the United States” (see Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.) The American Conifer Society declares the plant “ubiquitous.” It is sold everywhere.
This popular cultivar is both versatile and adaptable. It’s a small, easy-to-care-for evergreen that can fit almost anywhere – on a small property, or, at least temporarily, in a flower pot. Yet the unusual appearance of the plant makes it difficult to integrate into a landscape: it excels in formal gardens and topiaries, but can look out of place in a naturalistic garden.
Overplanted, yes. Awkward in some settings, certainly. But the cluster in Queset Garden looks great in winter, even on the grayest days.
Here are a few activities to commemorate this year’s solstice:
Measure your noontime shadow. According to Deborah Byrd, creator of the EarthSky website and radio series, “Around the time of the December solstice, it’s your longest noontime shadow of the year.”
Refresh your solstice astronomy on EarthSky
Learn about solstice traditions from multiple cultures on History magazine’s website
Make an evergreen cordial with this recipe from Traditional Medicinals
Courtesy: Traditional Medicinals