Today’s Plant Profile is about the China Fir, or Cunninghamia lanceolata. This is a majestic, evergreen tree that stands out in the landscape with its blue needled foliage. It is not a tree that should be planted in a small area as it can reach 75′ tall by 30′ wide in the landscape. It should be sited in full sun or very light shade and so that it can spread its branches far and wide.
China Fir was brought to the United States in the 1800’s for use as an ornamental tree. As is indicated by its common name, it hails from China where it can be found growing on roadsides as well as rocky hillsides. This should give you some indication of the toughness of this tree. It will do its very best in moist, well-drained soil but will grow quite well in soil that is drier. It is reliably hardy to Zone 7 but can be grown in Zone 6 gardens as well. In a cold Zone 6 garden, it may be killed to the ground in a harsh winter but it will resprout from suckers and will form a lovely dense shrub until the top is killed again in a subsequent winter. China Fir and Yews are the only two conifers that will resprout from suckers if they are cut back to the ground. You can use this knowledge to your advantage if you have a smaller garden but still want the beauty of the China Fir; just cut it back to the ground when it outgrows its allotted space and wait for it to fill the space again.
China Fir does have one significant drawback: it holds its dead foliage scraps in the tree instead of dropping them like pines and other conifers do. I call them foliage scraps because they aren’t individual needles…they are foot long pieces of foliage that have the needles intact. If allowed to accumulate for too long, the tree can look quite unkempt in the landscape. I have found that if you limb the tree up, it provides a path for the dead foliage to exit the tree. It also allows the lovely cinnamon colored bark to be displayed.
If you enjoy blue foliage in the garden, you should consider the China Fir. ‘Glauca’ is a cultivar that has been selected for its rich blue needle color. If your garden is small, you can treat it like a large shrub and cut it back every few years to keep it in check. But the true beauty of the China Fir is observed when it is allowed to grow to its maximum ability and spread its long Dr. Seuss-like branches over the landscape. I’d like to know if any of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers have experience with growing China Fir. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy gardening!