Redwoods, sequoias and bristlecones. California has the tallest, the biggest and the oldest conifers in the world. To excess, add extravagance. We also have the greatest variety. The whispering forests of the Sierra and Pacific ranges are thick with pine, juniper, larch and hemlock. We have drugs made from yew, homes from Douglas fir, fences from redwood.
Yet when it comes to landscaping our cities, we elected cedars from the Himalayas, pines from the South Pacific, cypresses from Iran. For our Victorian forebears, greatness simply wasn't gracious enough. The conifers of California weren't prize plants -- "specimen trees" -- selected to preside over a stately sweep of lawn; they were a renewable resource. Exotic plants served so much more clearly to demark town from country, civilization from the wild.
Today, the suitability of California conifers for home gardens has become a question of size. It's a rare redwood that respects a telephone wire. Yet more than a century since Los Angeles gardeners first succumbed to exotica, it is no longer novelty but scale that is the prized attribute. Long-ignored California conifers are being brought to town, and the cast of exotic trees is being refined, this time in search of plants that fit in rather than stand out.
Except, of course, at Christmas, when emotion rules.
Conifers include any plant that bears cones instead of flowers. In North America, the group includes cypresses, spruces, pines, firs, yews, junipers and cedars. Open it up to the Southern Hemisphere and it takes in podocarpuses, often called "yew pines," and the araucarias, such as the comically structured Norfolk Island pine.
There is no more beautiful school of plants, not orchids, not cacti. The leaves! (If they may be called that.) On so many conifers the leaves are needle-shaped, sometimes whirling right around a stem, sometimes standing out flat, sometimes dangling like pompoms. They come short, long, stiff, soft, bright green, gray, silver. Cypresses are distinct again, with lacy leaves patterned almost like snowflakes.
None of it is accidental. Everything about the architecture of the conifer is functional, evolved to equip an exact plant to survive in a precise place.
Pines occur in the toughest ranges: the poorest soils, along the edges of arctic, desert, ocean. Spruces and firs occupy the cushier ranges. Water-loving redwoods and sequoias sprang up in the rainy, fog-clad rain forests of Central California. A handy trick to tell them apart: Cones hang down on spruces and pines, and stand up on firs. In the case of junipers, the cones can be so small that they seem like berries. But on many conifers, particularly pines, the cones are the large, louvered affairs that we first gathered by the armful as children. Look! Mom! Dad!
Look we should, at any age. Female cones usually take two years to develop, with a young green season and a mature ripening one when cones open and seeds parachute to the ground.
Occasionally pines have one-year cones, says the curator of the Conifer Collection at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., Susan Martin, who laughs as she struggles to name one. Very occasionally they take longer. The San Diego Torrey pines produce enormous cones that can take 15 years to develop. Some other pine cones, such as the lodgepole's, will open only after a resin seal is burst by fire.
All pine seeds are edible. Find a pine range and jays will be crisscrossing the tree boughs. Forest biologist Ronald M. Lanner became so entranced by the relationship between Clark's nutcracker and the white bark pine that he wrote a singularly lovely book about it: "Made for Each Other."
Lanner, now retired, worked for the lumber industry. It shouldn't be surprising that loggers are among the most poetic observers of western conifers. They were out in the wilderness while gardeners created alternate Edens in towns.
Santa Barbara-based landscape historian Susan Chamberlin guesses that Italian cypresses arrived with the Spanish, long before the Golden Gate Nursery first officially imported them in 1858. By then, England's "gardenesque" style was sweeping the world: A landscape became a kind of plant zoo, bearing evidence of round-the-world collecting trips.
Between the 1850s and 1880s, deodar cedars, Canary Island pines, Italian stone pines and Norfolk Island pines began arriving from Europe through nurseries in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. They were so much the rage that the 1870s estate of L.A. nurseryman Ozro Childs was laid out as a conifer plantation.