Cryptomeria – for autumn colour in the middle of winter!

At this time of year the rich autumn colours are spectacular, if short-lived. When thinking of plants which exhibit great autumn colour, one automatically thinks of deciduous trees and shrubs which turn lovely shades of gold, copper and scarlet in the months of September and October. However, come November the leaves are gone and all that is left are the bare branches. For something with a longer period of interest it is well worth considering some of the Cryptomeria (Japanese cedar) cultivars.

These plants are attractive all year round but especially so in autumn when the foliage of some cultivars turns coppery or purplish, lasting throughout the winter months until they turn green again in the spring. With their red/brown bark and small cones, most of the larger Cryptomeria cultivars make ideal specimens, while the dwarf cultivars are ideal border or container plants.

Examples of those which have outstanding autumn colour are:

Cryptomeria japonica “Elegans” – this has soft, feathery foliage which hangs in tiers eventually forming a large conical tree.

Cryptomeria japonica “Elegans Compacta” – as the name suggests, this is a more compact form of its relation above, although it will ultimately grow into a sizeable plant of 6-12 feet.

Cryptomeria japonica “Vilmoriniana” – this is ideal as a container plant due to its slower growth rate and pleasing, neat globe shape as well as fantastic winter colour. With a maximum growth rate of just 10cm in 10 years it will certainly never get out of control and is closely related to Cryptomeria japonica “Compressa” which has a more vibrant bronze colour in winter.

Other varieties of Cryptomeria japonica have interesting foliage throughout the year rather than just in the autumn.

Cryptomeria japonica “Cristata” is a classic example with its striking and highly decorative foliage fusing together in a fan-shaped cockscomb which can look almost primordial in its appearance.

Cryptomeria japonica “Sekkan” has a stunning pale yellow foliage throughout the year, great for brightening up a dark corner of the garden. One point to watch is that, however, ridiculous as it may seem, it can suffer from “sunburn” if placed in full sun, due to its pale colour.

Although not known for its autumn colour, Cryptomeria japonica “Rasen” is also worth a mention if you like collecting interesting plants. A fast-growing tree, its needles form into spirals, giving them a twisted appearance on the branch.

Cryptomeria generally make good planting companions for heathers, grasses, late-flowering herbaceous plants (eg. Echinacea and Sedum) and shrubs with coloured foliage (eg. Leucothoe and Gaultheria) to name but a few. The majority of the Cryptomeria cultivars are Japanese in origin and are frequently used for bonsai.

All flourish in deep, fertile, moist but well-drained soil and, although it should be preferably slightly acidic, they will tolerate a chalky soil. They are also best situated in full sun or part shade, but the former gives the best autumn tints.

With such a variety of colours and forms, Cryptomeria shows that conifers can be exciting and vibrant and not just green!

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