Friday, June 28, 2013

Plant This Not That: Arborvitae Edition

Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) are evergreen trees which are prized by many homeowners for their deep green color, refined-soft texture and value as a year round screen plants.  However, this year the weather we experienced along the Front Range (which has been discussed here and here) exposed one of their weaknesses.  In our dry climate with its fluctuating and inconsistent temperatures in the spring they are borderline cold hardy.  

Arborvitae damaged by cold temperatures this spring
While you can get away with planting Arborvitae in the right protected microclimate I thought I might highlight a few more reliable substitutes for them in the landscape.
Cooke Peak Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica 'Cooke Peak')

This evergreen plant has a nice texture and attractive and aromatic spearmint green foliage color.  This selection is drought tolerant and reliably cold hardy along the Front Range.   The habits of individual plants can vary somewhat. 
 Two examples of Cooke Peak Arizona Cypress growning in Fort Collins. 

Close up of foliage of Arizona Cypress

Pinion Pine (Pinus edulis)

Pinion Pine is a native evergreen which is smaller in stature and not as dense as Arborvitae.  However, it is very drought tolerant once established and does add winter interest to a landscape.  Pinions sited in more moist sites such as irrigated turf grass may struggle.

Young Pinion Pine in the Adams County Colorado Master Gardener Demonstration

Rocky Mountain Junipers (Juniperus scopulorum various cultivars)

Woodward Rocky Mountain Juniper

There are many clones of Rocky Mountain Juniper which are suitable for use as screen plants, very drought tolerant once established and reliably cold hardy.  While they do lack the smoother more refined texture of arborvitae they offer a wider range of foliage colors.  The cultivar ‘Woodward’ is upright selection with dull green foliage which has a strong central leader and is less prone to damage from snow loading than other upright cultivars.  It may be difficult to find but it’s worth the search.    Selections such a “Gray Gleam”, “Cologreen” and “Moonglow” all have more gray-green or blue-green foliage and are more commonly available at nurseries and garden centers.   All three earned good ratings on the Front Range Tree Recommendation List.
Upright Oaks (Quercus various cultivars and crosses)

I know this seems like a stretch but hear me out.  While they are not evergreen most of the upright oaks are dense enough to provide some screening even in the winter.  Many of them also have attractive deep green foliage and some even get reddish fall color.  Most are narrow enough to fit in smaller yards of many new homes.  Crimson Spire Oak® (Quercus alba x robur 'Crimschmidt')is one upright hybrid with very attractive fall color.  Columnar English Oak (Quercus robur 'Fastigiata') and the other upright English Oak cultivars often exhibit juvenility, retaining dead leaves on their branches thoughout the winter.   Some people find this unattractive and it can increase snow loading, however, it does add extra screening value in the winter.
Columnar English Oak

While no plant is bulletproof these can fill many of the roles of Arborvitae in Front Range landscapes and are generally much more reliable.  Does anyone else have any favorite recommendations for Arborvitae’s niche?


  1. Great blog, Eric! I never thought I would recommend juniper as much as I have this year... Great alternatives for those Midwest-loving arbs.

  2. Great blog, Eric! You should see the sad state of many of the Thujia plants out here in Morgan County! My neighbor a few doors down has a nice brown row of them along his driveway. Like Alison has said, I have recommended a lot of Juniper this year. And underscored everything I say to people with "Winter Water!"

  3. So will the Arborvitae come back. We got hit by this also, and believe to see some green possibly returning. Our oak and maple trees were able to grow new buds, but am curious about the Arborvitaes'

  4. Thanks for sharing! Great post!

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  5. It's fair to add that in some instances, a deciduous screen is desirable in winter because you will enjoy more sun when you get the least of it, while still reaping the benefits of shade in the hot summer months. Great advice, we have far too many arbor vitae in my area and their illnesses can be exasperating.