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TREES, PLEASE: Do You Pine - Fir a Cedar?

By Robin Y Rivet.

Evergreens you might choose, but no larches, spruce or yews…


Eye-catching as a towering species, the Norfolk Island pine is open and tall, but relatively narrow. The Cook pine resembles it, but often leans naturally. Bunya-bunya’s cones are so large that the trees get cordoned off during “mating season”, and then there’s the monkey puzzle tree which mirrors its name in appearance. None are actually pines, and all hail from the southern hemisphere; but they do adapt well to our Mediterranean climate.


Majestic and stately is the deodar cedar. These skyline specimens have conical form, densely-spaced needles, and can exceed 70 feet. New growth leans sideways after initially growing upright. Although this characteristic may be mistaken for disease, it’s actually a key identification feature. From a distance, it’s easy to recognize a deodar by its lop-sided horizontal branch at the top. Another true and beautiful cedar, is the blue atlas cedar - revered for its similar elegant form and striking, silvery-blue color.


Arizona, Italian, Tecate and Leyland cypress are all grown here, and share scale-like foliage with millions of tiny leaves making up each small sprig, but only the small Tecate cypress is native. Many diseases attack cypress, and the Leyland often self-destructs, growing too rapidly to stay healthy. Junipers are also in the cypress family with scaly leaves, but have fleshy cones popular as flavoring for gin. Noteworthy in our region is the Hollywood juniper, a sculptural tree with a twisted, branching habit. The once regal and lofty native incense cedar, also has cypress-like scaly-foliage, despite being called a “cedar”. Unfortunately, this dignified and fragrant beauty isn’t faring well these days, as it is threatened by serious cankers, blights and fungal pathogens. The Montezuma cypress, with linear foliage - not scales, is closer to cedars in taxonomy - but enjoys San Diego’s environment.


Firs prefer colder weather to perform well, although our nurseries stock up on pre-cut Noble, Frasier, Douglas, and balsam firs for our winter holidays. CNPS lists the aromatic white fir as indigenous statewide, while the USDA plant database suggests it’s not really native to CA.


Our native Torrey pine is easily identified by its uncommon, five-needle bundles, and a see-through canopy, while the durable Aleppo pine from the Mediterranean has just three-needles to its bundle, and stone pines have only two. Japanese black pines are popular in Asian-style gardens, but disdain our weather - while the singleleaf piñyon pine with its tasty, edible nuts prevails in native places. Regardless, if you want a locally-grown holiday tree, you’ll likely pluck a “cut-your-own” Monterrey pine, another species that struggles in maturity from our repeat droughts, and can have both two or three needle bundles on the same tree.


A well-known genus, but could you handle ≥200+ feet.? The coast redwood prefers fog, so doesn’t thrive here, but the largest living tree species - the giant sequoia, is listed as accepting of dry soil and Sunset Zones 14-23, which means it might adapt to parts of inland San Diego County? Anybody want to try?


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