The Biscayne Times

Jun 25th
On Pines and Needles PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Shimonski -- BT Contributor   
January 2013

Conifers aren’t that unusual in older South Florida landscape

PPix_YourGarden_1-13hotography is one of my favorite pastimes, so I’m always on the lookout for plants and mushrooms to photograph. Normally I use the photos to accompany an article or to place on one of my websites, but sometimes I just take photos for historical or artistic reasons.

One day a couple of years ago I was driving through the Brownsville neighborhood when I passed a striking-looking cemetery with above-ground tombs. After a bit of searching, I found the name of the cemetery on the limestone arch at the entrance: Lincoln Memorial Park, established in 1924.

This date from early in the last century told me to expect mature and likely photogenic tree species. I know it is a bit morbid, but I’ve found and photographed some great mature tree specimens in older cemeteries, and Lincoln Memorial Park was no exception. Many cemeteries do a very good job of managing their trees.

After receiving permission from the cemetery manager, I spent several hours carefully walking through the property, taking photos of the trees. One of the more common species on the property was Oriental arborvitae, a lush green and densely branched evergreen conifer.

Whenever I see this species, and it is usually in older landscapes, I recall my youth, when its nice, soft foliage would provide a cushy stop for a child running at full speed. (Nevertheless, my friends and I learned to avoid these trees because wasps would frequently make nests in them and they did not take kindly to belligerent children.)

Because it’s a conifer, it does not have flowers. It gets cones like pine trees, but unlike pines, the much smaller, egg-shaped cones are colored blue-green. Oriental arborvitae has long been grown as an ornamental plant here in South Florida and can be found up to 20 feet in height and 15 feet in width. As the name might suggest, it hails from China. It thrives in hot, sandy, well-drained conditions, grows slowly, and seems to suffer few insect problems.

The scientific name of this conifer has been changed to Platycladus orientalis , although you can still find it on some nursery plant lists by its former name, Thuja orientalis.

The genus name Platycladus translates to “flat leaf,” as can be seen by the flat-sided foliage of this plant. There are many different cultivars of this species. Some stay quite small and grow very well in containers. There is also a cultivar with rust-colored foliage that looks quite distinct from your typical green plant.

The photo that accompanies this article shows an Oriental arborvitae growing in Lincoln Memorial Park. It has been trimmed at the base so it is not covering the above-ground tombs. This plant is usually quite dense, with branches and foliage all the way to the ground. Typically we see these plants (when not growing against anything else) in a fat, conical form, but some of the other cultivars are more oval or columnar.

There are native conifers besides pine trees that are found in Florida. One of these native trees is eastern red cedar, or Juniperus virginiana. It differs from Oriental arborvitae with foliage that is not so wide and flat. Eastern red cedar is dioecious; it has separate male and female plants with the small cones on the females being bluish in color. (Oriental arborvitae is monoecious, with both male and female floral structures on the same plant.)

In my travels to tropical countries, I have come across many conifer species that grow quite well in our local landscapes. Currently, I am growing a species of Agathis from New Zealand at Jungle Island. It tolerates our temperature, humidity, and soil conditions very well. In New Zealand, it grows to be a very large tree, so it will be interesting to see how it stands up to hurricanes.

A couple of years ago at the park, I planted two species of conifer from Indonesia. They are both Gymnostoma species and very attractive, with fine, green, “fluffy” foliage. They are used as ornamental plants in Southeast Asia; one species was introduced to Hawaii about 50 years ago.

Since they are in the same family as the invasive Australian pine, there is some concern they too could become invasive. They do not produce root suckers and viable seed from these species seems difficult to come across, so I felt comfortable planting them.

I see our Dade County pine often planted in landscapes. This is also an attractive tree, but be careful -- the roots will not tolerate vehicles driving over them and they also don’t seem to grow very well in an irrigated landscape.

Now, if you want to be able to grow a holiday tree that you don’t have to throw out every year, I just gave you some great ideas.


Jeff Shimonski is an ISA-certified municipal arborist, director of horticulture at Jungle Island, and principal of Tropical Designs of Florida. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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