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TREES, PLEASE! Conifers - A Fascinating Class Of Trees

By Tim Clancy, for Let's Talk Plants! July 2022.

Tim Clancy
Topped and not defeated Cook Pine.

One of the joys of living in San Diego is the sheer variety of trees to admire. When I first moved here in 1987 I was delighted to see the many flowering trees that grow here. Having grown up in the Northeast the only flowering trees I recall are apples. Where I lived, there were mostly conifers (cone bearing trees) which I naturally associated with snow and cold weather. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there are warm weather conifers and that some conifers, native to colder areas, survive quite nicely in San Diego’s climate.

Incense Cedar as found on

On the way to the grocery store I regularly pass by an Incense Cedar, Calocedrus decurrens. This tree is a California native growing quite nicely in Cardiff outside of its native range. One of its most common uses is in the production of pencils.

Here is a link to a YouTube video about the tree:

“Incense cedar wood for pencils is grown on sustainable tree farms.” - Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski has authored a fascinating book on pencils “The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance.”

Dawn Redwood as seen on

There is a dawn redwood tree planted in front of a home on Willowspring Drive that I make a point of visiting a few times a year. This species is interesting for a few reasons. There are many fossil records of the tree and for a long time these were the only proof the tree even existed. Based on these records the tree was thought to be extinct for twenty million years before it was found growing in China in the 1940s. Seeds were collected and now the tree grows in landscapes as an ornamental worldwide. As if that is not interesting enough, the dawn redwood is also one of the few deciduous conifers. Needles gradually turn color from bright green to a glorious bronze color before being shed from the tree. Finally, the botanical name Metasequoia glyptostroboides is just fun to pronounce and, when used in mixed company, makes one sound educated.


Wendy Cutler
Cook Pine, in the Liberty Station development near the Corvette Diner, in San Diego. 2011 Flickr photo by Wendy Cutler.

You can buy a Cook Pine, Araucaria columnaris, in all sorts of stores where it is marketed as a houseplant. First it must be noted that the Cook pine is not a pine at all. It is, however, a conifer. Given the right conditions and care, Cook pines can grow to be one hundred feet tall with a canopy spread of sixty feet. It is a commonly planted tree in San Diego landscapes despite masquerading as a house plant in your local grocery store.

Tim Clancy
Sap sealing the pruning cut on a Cook Pine.

On my regular walking route there is a Cook pine that I regularly pass by and admire. It has been in the ground for quite some time based on the trunk diameter of approximately twenty inches. It used to be around forty-five feet tall as well. I say “used to be” because I recently discovered that for some reason the tree has been topped. Luckily, these trees have evolved to withstand this type of event. So, the pruning “treatment” will not outright kill the tree, instead it will alter the way it grows. A branch or two will most likely re-orient themselves to assume the role of the leader (the top part of the tree that was removed.)

Conifers are a fascinating class of trees and with a little study and practice are easy to tell apart. A great place to start is with the American Conifer Society We are fortunate in San Diego to have such a wide variety to visit and admire.


Tim Clancy & Associates LLC

P.O. Box 1180

Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA 92007

International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist No. WE-0806A

International Society of Arboriculture - Tree Risk Assessment Qualified


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