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The Perfect Pine

Just as we have families, there are also families of plants. And like us, some have a large family and others are small. Each family of plants is unique in some way—such as its shape, height, fruit, or flowers—and plants are quickly separated into groups depending on whether the foliage is evergreen or deciduous. Not all members of every plant family have the same genus or botanical name, although some do.

It is always fun to see the common human characteristics that have seeped into the plant world for centuries. The classification and naming of plants was the responsibility of early botanists, or scientists, who specialized in the structure, growth, and classification of plant species. As a horticulturist, it is my responsibility to take this science of plants and turn it into an art form, and to cultivate this art form into what is collectively called a garden.

Lacebark pine
One plant family that is loved by many is Pinaceae, or the family of pines. Members of this family can be found growing all over the world. There are pines of all sorts of shapes and sizes, but most are tree-like. The diverse range and characteristics of the pinaceae family are what make them so identifiable. Most evergreen trees, like pine, spruce, and hemlock, are cone-bearing. We generally refer to all of these cones as “pine cones” even though that may not be their true origin.

What winter garden would be complete without a few evergreen plants? One of my favorites is the lacebark pine, Pinus bungeana. Not as common as white pine, but certainly more versatile, it has beautiful bark. We don’t tend to give the beauty of the bark much attention when selecting plants for our garden, but it can be a characteristic that has an incredible impact, especially as a plant matures.

Lacebark pine has a lot more going for it than just pretty bark. It is also an excellent choice for many gardens, large or small. The common white pine is used so heavily that it seems to be planted everywhere. It grows 50 to 80 feet tall and 25 to 40 feet wide—this is big! In comparison, lacebark pine grows much smaller, 30 to 50 feet tall and only 15 to 25 feet wide, making it more suitable for the medium to small garden, but it can also be used in any large garden space. It can be planted singly or in small groups, as well as making a great hedge or screen.

The foliage, or needles, of lacebark pine are a nice dark green and can be found in bundles of three. The 3- to 4-inch-long needles are quite stiff. It also holds three to four years of its growth of needles, making it appear more lush in the winter than some pines. White pine, as an example, has longer needles—4 to 5 inches long—but only holds two years of its needles, dropping one year of needle growth in the fall, making it more open or thin in the winter.

Growing conditions
As with most pines, lacebark pines prefer to grow in full sun. The soil should be acidic, rich, and moist but well-drained. Pines perform poorly in heavy, compact soils that are low in soil oxygen and typically extremely dry or constantly soggy. As a rule, I try to avoid planting pines in newly constructed sites, in a landscape berm, in areas where all the topsoil has been removed, where there has been any major soil moving, or where large equipment has been used.

Decorative bark
Pines are not typically known for having beautiful bark, which makes seeing a lacebark pine even more exciting. Once the trunk or stems grow to 2 inches in diameter or so, the bark begins to exfoliate naturally, showing whitish to brownish areas. Because of the decorative bark, it is not uncommon to see the lower branches removed to expose the beauty underneath. In a smaller garden, removing the lower branches allows you to grow large plants in a smaller space, opening up the garden area below. Of course, you will have to garden in the shade that will be cast as the tree matures.

Beautiful year-round, the lacebark pine is an excellent choice when you are considering a member of the pine family. Its slower growing habit also makes it an excellent choice when a faster growing selection would quickly take over the space.

I am always amazed and grateful for my garden in winter. When the temperature drops and we dream of spring, it is great to look out our windows and enjoy all the plants that remain evergreen. They stand out on a backdrop of brown and gray and prove to us that our gardens are alive and beautiful even in the dead of winter.

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