(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 18, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Now that the winter holidays are approaching, many of us are looking for suitable Christmas trees--living, chopped off, or artificial (plastic or metal.) But if you want something a bit different than the "same old, same old" and you like living Christmas trees, you might consider a BLUE conifer for this year's holiday. There are dozens of wonderful bluish conifers in a large variety of shapes, sizes and textures. Though not all blue conifers are suitable for all climates, no matter what climate you live in--with perhaps a few exceptions--there is a blue conifer for you.
Abies lasiocarpa (Alpine Fir) This is a pretty cold-tolerant and sometimes bluish conifer that comes in several cultivars, with the 'Arizona Compacta' probably being the best for a small living Christmas tree. I can't grow this one here as it really resents our hot summers, but it is an exceptionally neat, attractive tree. This is a very cold-tolerant tree, supposedly hardy down to -30 F (-34 C.)
Abies lasiocarpa (photo by Todd_Boland)
Abies pinsapo subsp. marocana (Moroccan Fir, Spanish Fir) This is a nice, soft tree with a good shape and excellent ornamental value. And it has quite a bit more heat tolerance than most other Abies species, as well as being bluish in color. The coldest temperature Moroccan Fir can tolerate is -10 F (-23 C.)
Abies pinsapo subsp. marocana
Abies procera 'Glauca' (Noble Fir) Another great-looking tree with excellent shape, neat, tidy foliage and a nice blue-green color. As a living tree it tends to get quite large eventually. This is one that does tolerate a modicum of dry, summer heat, but still prefers a cooler climate than mine. These are hardy down to about -20 F (-29 C.)
(left) Abies procera 'Glauca' (photo by growin) (right) Abies procera 'Bizzarro' (photo by kniphofia)
Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca' (Atlas Blue Cedar) One of my favorite blue conifers, as it is REALLY blue. I have used it as a Christmas tree in the past, but small specimens tend to be sort of spindly and not terribly symmetrical and certainly not conical in appearance. But you can hardly get a bluer conifer than this one. I like it also because it performs so well in my hot, dry climate showing no stress at all in the blazing heat of summer. It is cold tolerant to about -10 F (-23 C.)
(left) Typical form of Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca' in botanical garden. (right) Fantastically espaliered tree. (photo by growin)
Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca' showing blue color
The pendulous form of this tree (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula') is one of my favorite of all trees (not including Palms, of course) and makes an excellent potted, as well as landscape plant. This one would really make an odd Christmas tree, but some like that sort of thing.
Cedrus deodara (Deodar Cedar) This is a potentially massive tree whose normal coloration is a dark blue-green. It is a hardy species, particularly here in southern California, and has an excellent Christmas tree shape, though perhaps a tad thin and wispy as a smaller sapling. Some cultivars of this are supposed to be very blue (Cedrus deodara 'Electric Blue' for one) but I have not seen any of these personally.
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Elwoodii' (Lawson False Cypress) Several Chamaecyparis species have wonderful blue cultivars and can make great potted Blue Christmas Trees. This one also happens to be columnar and somewhat 'Christmas-Tree-shaped' as well. It is slow growing to ten feet tall and maintains a nice, neat, conical shape. Reportedly it does not do well indoors, so better to put it back outdoors after the holidays. It also is supposed to have more heat tolerance than some of the other blue Chamaecyparis.
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Elwoodii' in nursery
Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Cyano-Viridis' (Japanese False Cypress, Sawara Cypress) Several varieties of this Japanese native have a very soft, luxurious blue foliage. Though it is not the shape of a Christmas tree, it does fairly well in small containers and is a conifer. This was our personal choice for a Christmas tree last year, primarily because it was so 'user-friendly' and blue. The only problem for us is its lack of heat tolerance. It is rated to zone 7-8b, though that is inaccurate; we live in zone 9b to 10a and it survives here. Indeed it has problems with heatwaves, so keep it in the shade and water it well during those times if you live in a warm, dry climate. Japanese False Cypress is supposedly hardy to about -20 F (-29 C.)
Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Cyano-Viridis' (my own plant, and nursery plants in photo on right)
Chamaecyparis pisifera 'True Blue' is another nicely colored cultivar
Cunninghamia lanceolata glauca (Blue China Fir) This is another excellent and exceptionally blue conifer. Here in California this plant is amazingly tolerant not only of blazing summer heat, but drought as well. It is a good conical shape, though I personally have not seen a seedling, so I don't know how it would perform as a smaller Christmas tree. It is cold tolerant to about -10 F.
Cunninghamia lanceolata 'Glauca' (second photo by growin)
Cupressus arizonica subsp. stephensonii (Cuyamaca Cypress) This subspecies and the 'Blue Ice' cultivar are two of the bluer Cypress species and also nice conically shaped plants. Both are quite heat-tolerant, though only cold hardy down into zone 7 (0 F or -17 C.) These are also exceptionally drought-tolerant plants. The foliage color is a pale blue-green.
Cupressus arizonica close up of Cupressus arizonica foliage
Cupressus arizonica 'Blue Ice' (2nd photo by bootandall)
Cupressus torulosa var. cashmeriana (Kashmir Cypress) This is probably my favorite of all the blue conifers and I have one growing in my yard. It is not a very cold-tolerant plant, barely tolerating temperatures that dip below freezing, but a great conifer for hot, humid and tropical climates. My climate is somewhat marginal for it, though I admit I have not seen it struggle with any of our cold, yet. It is not a great Christmas tree as a sapling; it is rather sparsely foliated at that size. But as a mature tree it is a perfect manageable size and has exceptionally soft, draping, delicate foliage and is strikingly blue.
Cupressus torulosa var. cashmeriana
Juniperus chinensis 'Blue Point' (Chinese Juniper) Though not a true blue (rather sort of a pale glaucous green) it is a remarkably hardy conifer tolerating both cold (down to -30 F) and heat (over 100 F,) as well as wind and drought. It has dense foliage and might make a great small living Christmas tree. However, my own personal experiences with this plant is that is NOT very wind tolerant, and all attempts to grow this one in my yard have failed, despite its claimed tolerance. Oh well... There are better choices below for the high, windy deserts.
Juniperus chinensis 'Blue Point' (photo by Todd_Boland); Juniperus chinensis 'Pfitzeriana Glauca' is also a bluish form of this species
Juniperus procumbens 'Nana' (Japanese Dwarf Garden Juniper) Though more of a bonsai-type juniper only growing to ten to twelve inches tall, it is still a somewhat bluish conifer (new growth is bright green, though). It is also quite hardy, surviving our warm climate in southern California and handling cold down to zone 4.
Juniperus procumbens 'Nana'
Juniperus scopulorum (Tolleson's Weeping Juniper) This is sort of like a greener version of the Kashmir Blue Cypress in overall shape and appearance, though significantly more drought-tolerant, cold-tolerant and larger overall. This is one of the most cold-hardy of all the conifers tolerating temps well into the super-cold zone, as low as -50 F or -45 C! So if you live in Alaska and want a blue Christmas tree, this is probably one of your only choices. It also does quite well here in the desert-like climate of southern California; it is an amazingly adaptable tree.
Juniperus scopulorum 'Tollephson's Weeping' in Los Angeles arboretum, California
Juniperus scopulorum 'Witchita Blue' This is a plant I have grown myself and, for the high desert region in California where few blue conifers survive (save the Arizona Cypress), this seems to be a pretty hardy plant. It is quite blue, too. Has a nice conical shape as well, making it a good in-ground Christmas tree.
Juniperus scopulorum 'Witchita Blue' (left plant in left photo) in my yard; foliage of same plant right photo
Juniperus squamata 'Blue Carpet' (Creeping Blue Juniper, Blue Carpet Juniper) Several forms of this species, including 'Blue Star', are bluish in coloration. However they are--as the name suggests--'carpet-shaped' (low growing, flattish shrubs) and not terribly Christmas tree-like. But perhaps that shape would make a unique bluish Christmas shrub, perfect for hiding small gifts under its boughs?
Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star' and 'Blue Carpet' (photos by Grampapa and by growin)
Juniperus virginiana 'Blue Arrow' This is another plant I have grown and though 'blue' is somewhat of a stretch, it is certainly bluer than most Junipers... but greenish with a bluish shade is more like it. Still, has a nice conical Christmas tree shape. Does pretty well in the hot high desert so I can hardly complain about it.
Juniperus virginiana 'Blue Arrow' (two plants on right in left photo... third plant is Juniper 'Blue Point' discussed above for comparison); close up of foliage (right)
Picea chihuahuana (Chihuahua Spruce) This is one of the most blue of the blue Spruces and certainly an excellent choice for shape and tidiness. For me this is a hopeless plant as it cannot tolerate our hot summers.
Picea chihuahuana (photo by growin)
Picea glauca 'Coerulea' (Black Hills Spruce) Though more pale green-blue than bluish, it is at least atypical in leaf coloration and a good choice for shape. I don't know much more about this cultivar except that it's cold tolerant down to about -35 F and certainly not a good plant for the desert climate we live in here.
Picea glauca 'Coerulea' (photo by growin)
Picea glauca 'Sanderi' (Dwarf Alberta Spruce) This is a small shrubby tree but an excellent Christmas tree shape and cold tolerant down to zone 3 (-40 F.) It has very small needles and a very ornamental patchwork of pale blue and bright green foliage.
Picea glauca 'Sanderi' (photos by PPCSPC, or SmallPlants.com)
Picea pungens (Blue Spruce) This is the classic Christmas tree in many areas of the country, and was certainly a common choice where I grew up in the Rocky Mountains. There are many varieties of this species--far too many to list here--but they come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. If you live in a climate zone that is suitable to this species (I don't) then you have a number of choices for a blue Christmas tree. Some forms are particularly blue and some are amazing conical and Christmas tree-shaped.
(left) Picea pungens 'Glauca Globosa' (photo by Gustichock) (middle) Picea pungens 'Thomsen' (photo by conifers) (right) Picea pungens 'Glauca Pendula' (photo by conifers)
(left) Picea pungens 'Nana' (photo by growin) (middle) Picea pungens 'Thume' (photo by slyperso1) (right) Picea pungens (photo by Xenomorf)
Pinus flexilis 'Vanderwulf's Pyramid' (Limber Pine) I saw this at several nurseries in southern California and was sorely tempted to get it for Christmas one year, but heard it grew into a monster so declined. But is has an incredibly ornamental foliage that almost looks fake with alternating dull green and whitish soft, long needles which give an overall blue effect. I love this tree but have no personal experience growing it, and predict it would die in my desert landscape since it is only rated to tolerate 7b and not warmer.
Pinus flexilis 'Wanderwulf's Pyramid' (the one I almost bought.)
Pinus parviflora 'Bergmani' (Bergman's Japanese White Pine) Somewhat similar in needle detail to the above pine, this one has the alternating white and green needles that create the overall blue effect. This one has more curved needles and they are shorter than those of Pinus flexilis. However, it is a somewhat hardier plant in terms of heat, surviving up to zone 9a (almost... but not quite good enough for us here in southern California.) It is tolerant of cold down to about -20 F (-29 C.)
Pinus parviflora 'Bergmanii (photos by Kell)
Podocarpus elongatus 'Icee Blue' (or Monmal) (Yellow Wood) Most don't think of Podocarpus species as conifers and thereful might not think of them, either, as potential Christmas Trees, but perhaps one should. This is the only blue Podocarpus cultivar and it can be quite blue. It grows to twenty five tall, but can be containerized easily and does assume a natural 'Christmas Tree shape'. This is a good plant for the warmer climates being rated zones 9 through 11.
Podocarpus elongatus 'Icee Blue'
Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Glauca' (Blue Douglas Fir) Despite its name, this is not a particularly blue conifer, though growing among much greener pines it does tend to look blue. But it is an excellent plant in terms of shape and tidiness. These are cold tolerant down to about -20 F (-29 C) but not very heat tolerant; zone 7b is its maximum.
Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Glauca' (photo by Gustichock)
Tsuga mertensiana var. glauca (Blue Mountain Hemlock) This is a large tree, but as a seedling it could make a nice bluish Christmas tree if you live in zones 5 to 9. I have not seen this tree in person, and know little else about it.
Tsuga mertensiana var. glauca (photo by Todd_Boland)
Having a green Christmas tree year after year certainly reinforces tradition... but if you are like me and like to go against tradition often, this list is a good place to start. Blue, as a foliage color, is 'in' now, anyway. Happy Holidays!