Colorado’s Iconic Blue Spruce

Bowman's Root and Blue Spruce_DBG_LAH_4163Colorado has a love affair with the blue spruce (Picea pungens). Perhaps we’re enamored with the striking, steel-blue tint to the needles, and the way the color causes fall’s orange leaves to glow. Perhaps we appreciate the towering, pyramidal shape of a mature tree, or the short and squat dimensions of a dwarf cultivar.

A number of gardeners I’ve talked to added a blue spruce to their yard because it’s Colorado’s state tree. Blue spruces may not be the easiest species for Front Range landscapes, but they’re definitely worth the effort.

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My Pine Has Brown Needles!

We all know that deciduous trees—oaks, maples, and the like—lose their leaves in the fall. But what about conifers? They’re supposed to be evergreen! Should we be worried if we see lots of brown needles on our pines and firs?

Pine trunks_NehalemSP-OR_LAH_8177As is frequently the case with questions about gardening, the answer is “it depends.”

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White Frost, Green Leaves

Rime on trees_BlkForest_20091011_LAH_3876We’ve been enjoying some glorious autumn foliage these past few weeks, but there are plenty of plants that remain stubbornly green. In fact, their leaves stay green no matter what the season—that’s why we call them evergreens. With winter just around the corner, I began to wonder—how do evergreens survive our cold winters? Why don’t they lose their leaves?

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Pollen Season

Ponderosa pollen_BlkForest-CO_LAH_7558-001For the past few weeks, my blue car has been yellow. Drifts of fine mustard-yellow dust cover our patio, our deck, and the floors indoors. I dust, and dust, and dust again; each time the rag comes up yellow. What is this dull yellow layer that covers everything? It’s pollen. More specifically, Ponderosa Pine pollen.

ponderosapollen - npsFor those of us who live with pine trees, the pollen season is a yearly event as predictable as the throngs of Miller Moths currently beating themselves to death against our windows, and happening at the same time of year. Because we had a lot of rain at the end of last summer, 2014 is particularly pollen-y. All those trees, once dying from thirst, have a new lease on life, and they’re taking full advantage.

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Dwarf Mistletoe is not for kissing

Sparse foliage and a witches' broom indicate a mistletoe infection.
Sparse foliage and a witches’ broom indicate a mistletoe infection.

Mistletoe is a holiday tradition. We decorate our doorways with it, where tarrying under a spring might bring you a kiss. Unfortunately, the kind of mistletoe growing along Colorado’s Front Range isn’t so romantic. Five different species of dwarf mistletoe infest pines, spruces and firs. Given enough time, an infected tree will eventually die.

All mistletoes are flowering plants that have given up a life of self-sufficiency to become harmful parasites. Dwarf mistletoes lack leaves, so they have little ability to make their own food from sunlight. Instead of extending their roots into the soil, they have root-like structures that penetrate under the bark, where they siphon off both water and nutrients from the host tree.

The female mistletoe plant produces sticky seeds. When the seed capsules are ripe, usually in late summer, they explode, expelling their contents at speeds up to 60 mph! The seeds can travel up to 60 feet, although 30 feet is more common. Wherever the seeds hit, there they stick.

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Living Christmas Trees

Photo: Judy Sedbrook, CSU Extension
Photo: Judy Sedbrook, CSU Extension

With the surge in environmentalism, many people are trying to decide which is “greener,” a real Christmas tree or an artificial one. Both have their pros and cons. There is, however, a third alternative. You can decorate a still-living tree this year.

Most nurseries and garden centers sell potted Christmas trees. You bring them indoors for a brief spell (a week at most) during the holidays, then plant them permanently in the ground.

Still-living trees cost more. No one wants to pay a premium for a tree that still has roots, only to have it die after moving it outside. While planting a Christmas tree isn’t difficult, you should do the same research and preparation that you would do when choosing any tree for your yard.

First of all, make sure you have the right tree for the right place. Consider how the tree will fit into your overall landscape plan. Most evergreen trees get very large. That cute three-foot fir may have a mature height of 70 feet or more! Instead of trying to cram a giant into a small suburban yard, choose a dwarf specimen instead—or arrange to plant it elsewhere so it will have room to grow.

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