Gold Thread False Cypress - Commonly (Mis)used


Gold thread false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) is a Sawara cypress frequently (mis)used in landscaping -- 'Golden Mop' is predominant but there are a few less common forms / cultivars. This nonprickly and noninvasive Japanese native performs well in central Indiana but CAUTION the related C. obtusa does NOT and should be avoided. The enticing C. obtusa specimens you see online and at garden centers look that way because (1) they were grown in nearly perfect conditions elsewhere, likely in the Pacific NW, and (2) are young (see youthful deception, Chap 25 {Truth in Advertising} in my Rantings book) but would relatively soon look like crap once planted -- exposed to Indiana conditions. You might get a year or two before deciding it was a bad idea and extracting -- the reason you do NOT see nice older specimens anywhere in central Indiana. The Indiana businesses selling C. obtusa should know better.


'Golden Mop' can be spectacular but there are six related landscaping problems. (1) Not understanding that all woody plants have indeterminate growth. It does not matter that you may not want to hear or believe this. It is fact. Moreover, relying on size information from the internet or plant labels can be dicey. In some instances, the info is accurate but DOES NOT pertain to where you garden. In other cases, the info is flat-out inaccurate. Even generally excellent resources like the Kemper Center for Home Gardening Plant Finder, developed and maintained by the outstanding Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, occasionally are wrong, and the conditions in St. Louis are different from central Indiana. Kemper lists the height and spread of 'Golden Mop' as 3-5 feet. I have a pic that I use in talks of a 25-year-old specimen over 16 feet tall and basally wide growing north of Bloomington IN, in Lisa and Dan Burnham's fabulous garden. The specimen is alive and getting bigger. Again, the concept of a mature (stops growing) height (and often width) for woody plants is false. Several of my previous posts (these monthly rants) emphasize this ignored reality -- most recently (Oct, 2021) Green Giant - BEWARE. All trees, shrubs, and woody vines continue to get bigger if they are alive, unless dormant. One of my favorite quotes is relevant (from Paul Simon's masterpiece The Boxer) "Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest." (2) The rich yellow of this cultivar is dependent on growth in full sun. Specimens situated in more shade will be less golden; often almost chartreuse -- attractive, but not a rich yellow. (3) Thinking dwarf always means small. In fact, dwarf denotes smaller than the wild form. The wild form of C. pisifera is a lumber species -- specimens can exceed 100 feet tall, with a trunk five feet in diameter! (4) Many potentially long-lived cultivars (e.g., 'Golden Mop') have not been in existence long enough for accurate size determine. (5) People often think the size issue can be resolved simply, by pruning. NOT! I enjoy pruning but would never, let me repeat NEVER consider this action as an option for 'Golden Mop.' Pruning of this cultivar would be extraordinarily time consuming AND the inner vegetation (the parts not exposed to the sun) will be a different color. Bottomline, want to ruin the specimen(s), start cutting. Doing so destroys the natural shape -- removes two outstanding but overlooked features (a) the occasional stray and often sparse leaders, and (b) the soft look afforded by the downturned terminal portions of the branches. For a visual representation, hold your arm horizontal in front of you and notice how the hand droops when relaxed. Now look at the above pic (Indianapolis, near northside). The hand/fingers represent the part that is exposed and potentially golden. Moreover, pruning woody species often stimulates new and more rapid growth, yet most pruning is done to reduce size. Chew on that contradiction for a minute. And (6) Not everything being sold as 'Golden Mop' is identical -- there is variation like with the common daylily 'Stella de Oro.'


Most people plant this potentially stunning broad-based (i.e., as wide as tall, at least when younger) "evergreen" in the wrong location, that is, too much shade and/or too close together or in relationship to other plants, hardscape, or building, or they manage to get the left to right okay but forget about the front to back. Accordingly, the pyramidal mounding specimens soon get butchered before the decision is made to remove them. Money, time, and nice plant material wasted. When siting this cultivar allow for an eventual minimum of 100 sq feet of space per specimen. That means at least 11 feet (center to center) between a specimen of the same cultivar -- even then the plants will eventually merge forming a broad hedge. Older specimens likely will be without lower branches, then more like a multi-trunked tree than a bush but, as I already noted, the cultivar has not been in use long enough to know or to experience this appearance.


Regarding the landscape in the photo: (1) the too narrow sidewalk leading from the house is an accident waiting to happen (edge and width), (2) the volcano mulching on the red maple is ill-advised (as are red maples -- what is the purpose here? not shade for this house), and (3) I strongly recommend not using Fine Line buckthorn (the specimens on either side of the steps leading to the porch) -- they go to hell quickly and the genus (Rhamnus) is a major problem in Chicago area wetlands. Finally, the owners should have been more careful in addressing the slope since heavy rain will (1) wash the mulch to the sidewalk and (2) the Mops on the slope have dissimilar growing conditions and eventually will look different when compared to the other specimens. This is an issue people generally do not consider when using multiple specimens -- an inherent problem with monoculture and a common gardening mistake -- never mind the size ignorance discussed above. If this landscaping was designed by a "professional," which would not surprise me, I would NOT endorse them. Plants as furniture or an interior decorator approach. May be good with color schemes and form -- the short-term pleasing install -- but designer does not know plants and gardening. Just a way to make money. And, of course, there is the ubiquitous "it is my idea, so it must be a good idea" as well as the I will just copy what everyone seems to be doing, presuming that must be good. Follow the pack. Bottomline: Be careful whose advice/example you follow -- both gardening and life in general.


PS: I drove past the place pictured above a few days before this rant was scheduled to post. There had been an admirable attempted trim. Not surprisingly, with the result I indicated -- butchery. when compared with the before pic.



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