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Plant of the month: colour-changing conifer

A tiny pine with a big story greets winter frosts with a burst of leafy sunshine

Evergreen plants add great qualities to the garden in winter, such as much-needed form and structure. Among these plants are most conifers, including dwarf golden pines.

Often regarded now as unfashionable, these actually have great ornamental qualities that really come into life during the winter. Their golden needles look pretty dusted in snow or shining out brightly on a frosty morning and they make particularly good foils to the brightly coloured stems of willows or dogwoods.

Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ AGM is a favourite among the dwarf golden pines growing at Wisley. It comes into its own as the temperature drops in the autumn and winter when its green needles turn a spectacular golden yellow.

You can find it on our Winter Walk, where it is planted along with Nandina, Bergenia and a lovely Tibetan cherry, Prunus serrula, and on the Conifer Lawn, where it is seen alongside Podocarpus ‘Young Rusty’ and Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’.

Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ has an interesting history. On a hunting trip in Oregon’s beautiful Wallowa Mountains in the north west USA, a chap called Doug Will discovered this pine in the late 1970s. Legend has it that he dug up the original plant with an axe. It is named after Chief Joseph (1840-1904), of the Wallow Valley Nez Perce Native American tribe, who come from this region.

Small beginnings

Pinus contorta 'Chief Joseph'Although called a dwarf conifer, this doesn’t necessarily mean it stays small forever. It is slow growing, taking 10 years to reach approximately 1.2m (4ft), and, depending on its growing conditions, it will only get to its ultimate height of 2.5–4m (8–13ft) after 20–50 years. However, its small size can be used to the gardener's advantage.

Grow it as a stunning specimen tree for a small garden or rockery. It likes a well-drained, neutral to acid soil, copes well with exposed windy sites and is extremely hardy. It prefers full sun, and this will show off its golden foliage to best effect. This dwarf golden pine is propagated by grafting, meaning there is never going to be large numbers in the nursery trade. But even if this one is unavailable, there are other excellent golden pines too, such as Pinus mugo ‘Ophir’ AGM and Pinus mugo ‘Carsten’ AGM.

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.