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Sunday - December 28, 2008

From: Sandy Hook, CT
Region: Northeast
Topic: Planting, Transplants, Trees
Title: Dwarf golden cypress outgrowing their space
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I planted two dwarf golden cypress on opposite sides of a dwarf alberta spruce in a small bed by the front door. After 4 years I have to severely prune back the dwarf cypress in spring as they will spread 5 ft. wide. Is it safe to dig and move these cypress elsewhere or should I continue to prune them back lest I hurt them by moving them. They are beautiful and healthy. Hardly what I'd call a "dwarf" plant.


First, we had to figure out exactly what plants we were talking about. Nurseries can, and do, name the plants they sell just about anything, and it often has nothing to do with the actual name or nature of the plant, itself. Because the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is concentrated on the care, propagation and protection of plants native to North America and to the area in which they are being grown, the first place we go is to our Native Plant Database. 

We found that the dwarf Alberta Spruce is a naturally-occurring variant of  Picea glauca (white spruce). The white spruce in its original state can grow to 100 ft. or more tall and is a conifer, belonging to the Pinaceae (Pine) family. The dwarf version, referred to as cultivar 'Conica" was found growing naturally by two botanists from the Arnold Arboretum in 1904. When it was proved to be successful propagating it in the dwarf form, it entered commerce a few years later. It will reach 15 ft. tall in northern locations, but grows very slowly, only about 2" to 4" a year. See this About.com: Landscaping website on Dwarf Alberta Spruce Tree.

Discovering exactly what a dwarf golden cypress was, however, proved to be a little more difficult. There are two native trees, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (Port Orford cedar), and Chamaecyparis thyoides (Atlantic white cedar), both members of the Cupressaceae (Cypress) family, but neither of them are golden nor dwarf and are referred to as "false cypresses". We found this Ohio State University website Chamaecyparis pisifera which mentions a 'Gold Mops' cultivar. We also found pictures of Golden Hinoki cypress which would appear to fit the description of a golden dwarf. The last two are both natives of Japan, which means we have no information on them in our Native Plant Database.

Your question was whether you should transplant these dwarf golden cypresses or continue to prune them. We can tell you that members of the Cupressaceae family don't take well to transplanting. They have long taproots which, if damaged, can weaken or kill the tree. Also, you were concerned that they were not acting like dwarf plants. Dwarves are usually selected plants, that is, smaller versions will be crossed with other smaller versions, in hopes of developing a so-called dwarf. In actuality, they can revert to their normal growth rate, and often do. Since they appear to be rather feathery and open, they could probably continue to be pruned without seriously affecting their appearance. If you decide you would rather take them out of the space and give the dwarf Alberta spruce more room, we would suggest you get the help of a licensed arborist to try to avoid damaging the trees.

Pictures of Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (Port Orford cedar)

Chamaecyparis thyoides


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