’Tis Always the Season for Evergreens
By Gretchen A. Peck
The coming of New England winter and its predictably blustery winds have seized the final remaining leaves from the region’s deciduous trees. It’s up to the evergreens now to provide color and character to the landscape.
The term “evergreens” covers both conifers and broadleaf plants that retain their leaves year-round or well into the winter season. Maggie Redfern is the associate director of the Connecticut College Arboretum, and she took some time out this week to introduce Welcome Home to the arboretum’s programs, tours, and splendid examples of evergreens found among the acreage.
As associate director, Redfern oversees programming and outreach for the arboretum, including a program that pairs local elementary school students with qualified Conn College students for guided experiences of the native plant tour.
“We really like for the school kids to be able to explore and find things,” she said. “In the spring, we’re looking at flowers and talking about pollination. In the fall, we look at seeds and the different ways they move throughout the landscape.”
This past November, the arboretum hosted a “S.A.L.T.” conference, an acronym for “Smaller American Lawns Today.”
“The idea is to teach homeowners about opportunities for growing native gardens and incorporating native plants in their landscapes,” Redfern explained.
“We really focus on native plants, but also other useful plants,” she added. Vegetable gardens or other edible plants are an example of useful plants. … We had a focus this year on indigenous plants and had two Native American experts speak to us about traditional uses of native plants. We also had a landscape architect teach us how to integrate native plants into our landscapes.”
In January 2023, the arboretum is hosting a symposium for landscape architects who’d like to explore design ecology. A tour of the arboretum’s greenhouse is coming up in February 2023. Guided tours are typically held May through October. The public is welcomed to sign up for the arboretum’s free e-newsletter at conncoll.edu, or follow its Facebook and Instagram pages.
Conifers and Broadleaf Evergreens
A symbol of the season, evergreen conifers sparkle and shine across town greens this time of year. Carefully selected and adorned, they’re perfectly positioned by homeowners and apartment dwellers, with window framing for passersby outside. December may be the month when we think most about these evergreen wonders, but in Connecticut, they beautify and enhance the environment all year long.
Connecticut has nine native conifers: Atlantic White, Eastern Red and Northern White cedars; Red, White and Pitch pines; Black and Red spruce; and the Eastern Hemlock.
“Conifers are the cone-producing plants,” Redfern noted. “Some of the cones—like the cone of the Eastern Red Cedar—look more like a berry than a cone, but botanically speaking, that’s a cone.”
Rhododendron, American Holly and Inkberry plants are familiar examples of broadleaf evergreens that retain their leaves all year.
“There are a few others that hold their leaves really long into the season, like Bayberry, which is really common along the shore of Connecticut,” Redfern said. “The Bayberry plants in the arboretum haven’t even dropped their leaves yet. They’ve just barely turned an almost russet-red color. They’re really beautiful this time of year, when most of the other leaves have already fallen.”
The Southern Magnolia is another broadleaf evergreen tree that more often thrives in warmer climates, but can also be found as far north as Connecticut. “It’s very commonly used for making garlands and wreaths this time of year,” Redfern said. She’d been thinking about introducing a Southern Magnolia to her own yard, but reconsidered when she factored how the year-round shade might impede the sun from thawing frozen sidewalks. She raised an important point about planting broadleaf evergreens or conifer trees at home—consider the space, and consider the environmental impact.
Some varieties of evergreen conifers can lend privacy to a yard, providing a natural screen. But depending on growth rate, height and circumference, other evergreens may simply be too big for the spot. Conifers with needle-like leaves may be better options than broadleaf evergreens for areas subjected to heavy snowfall. Eastern Red Cedars, or Juniperus Virginiana, are particularly tolerant of the salt air, Redfern said.
Climate change has brought milder winters to Connecticut, and some varieties of trees, like the balsam fir, now thrive better in northern latitudes.
“That’s what we’re seeing with our sugar maples, too—that they’re preferring colder winters, and we’re just having much, much warmer winters,” Redfern said.
When introducing broadleaf evergreens to your yard, consider adding both male and female varieties to help them thrive. Redfern recommends a “five females to every one male” ratio. Winterberry bushes tend to prefer wet ground and often thrive next to streams, Redfern noted. They ultimately shed their leaves in the wintertime, leaving bright red berries dotting their twig-like branches. Their little pop of color is a perfect seasonal display for the neighbors to enjoy, but the birds benefit even more. Redfern explained how the berries seem to hang on long into the winter, and just when the coldest temperatures arrive and food is scarce, the birds swoop in to savor them.