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Tuesday - March 16, 2010

From: Katy, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Trees
Title: Live Christmas tree in Katy, TX
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

My husband is really bent towards having a live "Christmas tree" in the front yard. I hate to use anything non-native so I am looking for a native Texas juniper shrub or a small tree that can be trimmed into a pencil shape, or anything similar (fir-trees, etc). Preferably with some nuts/berries for the critters. I want to put it close to the wall of the house, so it cannot be large in diameter, or I have to be able to control its width. The area is in part-shade, getting sun before noon.

ANSWER:

Once again, an order for a tailor-made plant. Unfortunately, Nature doesn't take orders. There are native trees and shrubs that can be trimmed, including the juniper. There are 15 species of juniper native to North America, of which 7 are native to Texas.  Juniperus ashei (Ashe's juniper) is common in West and Central Texas but it does not grow natively around the Houston area. It is widely reviled as an allergen producer as, in fact, most junipers are, and makes for misery right around Christmas time for sufferers. Juniperus virginiana (eastern redcedar) does grow in the Houston area. Read this USDA Forest Service website Eastern redcedar to learn more about its size, including its width as it grows. Trimming this plant into a pencil shape causes us to envision a tall coat-rack with little green on it. This tree can grow to be quite wide. The female does have berries for the "critters" but if you keep it trimmed back like that it will never have the limbs to make berries.

Moving on to the fir, there are 9 species of the genus Abies (fir) native to North America, none are native to Texas. They grow generally in cool mountain forests at about 4000 to 6000 feet, conditions not noted in your area. Abies fraseri (Fraser fir) grows in the Southeast United States, in the Appalachian Mountains, and is in the size class of 72 to 100 ft. Abies grandis (grand fir) is native to the Northwest; the champion fir is in Olympic National Park and is 231 ft. tall with a circumference of 208 ft. We don't think that is a good close-to-the-house tree, even if it would grow in your area.

Looking at other possibilities, you might consider one of the shrubs in the Ilex (holly) genus that are native to Texas. There are 13 members of the genus Ilex native to North America and 9 native to Texas. Of these, Ilex opaca (American holly) and  Ilex vomitoria (yaupon), will do well in the Houston area. Both are evergreen, can be pruned successfully, have cultivars that are pyramidal or columnar in shape, and have berry-like fruits. 

Now, here's the tricky part. You indicated you wanted the berries. Both hollies have the berries  but all members of the genus Ilex are dioecious. That means that while both the male and female bloom, only the female has  berries. And, in order for the female to have berries, there must be a male of the same species within about a 40 ft. radius, that blooms at the same time. The reason this is tricky is that if you go into a plant nursery in the Spring, all the hollies will be blooming. If you go into that nursery in the Fall, they will all have red berries on them. Because only the females have berries, and most people want the berries, the nursery will be stocked with female plants which have been pollinated by males before they were shipped to the nursery. For the nursery trade, propagation of the holly is by taking cuttings, which means that every plant is identical to the parent plant, or clones. If the parent plant was female, all the offspring will be female, too. So, if you buy a holly with red berries on it, it blooms in the Spring, and then has no berries in the Fall, what happened? You have a female but no male of the same species blooming at the same time in the area, and no berries.

If you deal with a reputable nursery that knows what they are doing, they will be able to both recommend cultivars that will shape as you wish, with pruning, and find you a female to plant in your featured spot and a male to plant within 40 ft. 

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