During the winter months when skies are gray and gardens are colorless, there is a bright group of conifers that add warmth to a winter garden. These amazing trees range in hue from yellow to gold to orange, and sometimes in striking color combinations. Some of them change color from green to gold as the seasons progress, and others retain their golden springtime hue throughout the year. Light-colored conifers adapt their color to how much sun, shade, or cold they are exposed to. Some of these trees grow best in partial shade or indirect light because full sun can burn their light colored young foliage, or in some cases, their mature foliage as well. On the other hand, there are winter gold cultivars that do very well in full sun. In general, sun will bring out more vivid color than shade will, and cold temperatures will also heighten color. Be sure you know the light requirements of your golden conifers so that you can site them appropriately in your landscape. Also, it’s important to be aware of the scale and growth rate of surrounding companion plants in relation to your conifers. You wouldn’t want nearby trees to outstrip your prized conifer in size and scale! The color of companion plants is another consideration. Golden conifers stand out beautifully against a backdrop of dark green or blue evergreens such as pine, spruce, arborvitae or yew. Broadleaved evergreens do well, too, such as holly, English laurel, and rhododendron. Plan your garden so that your winter gold conifers have the opportunity to display their most dazzling colors. Below are seven outstanding winter gold conifers that we recommend.
Abies concolor ‘Wintergold’
This beautiful fir puts on yellow-green needles in the spring that darken to green in the summer, then turn to a rich golden yellow with the arrival of cold weather in the winter. It is a dwarf, with horizontal branching, pyramidal shape, and a soft appearance due to its long needles. ‘Wintergold’ grows at a slow rate of about 3” to 6” a year, and attains a height and width of 5’ × 3’ in 10 years. It can grow in sun to partial shade in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8. This interesting little tree is a bright accent that gives warmth to a winter garden with its yellow foliage and soft form. It was introduced in Germany in 1959.
Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader’
This is a dense, squat Nordmann fir that starts out with light green foliage in the spring and summer and finishes the season with golden yellow needles in the winter. Its new spring foliage and winter needles need protection from bright sun, so it’s best to locate this little tree in a shady spot of the garden. It is compact and broadly conical, more wide than high. The top of the tree is pushed down, or depressed, when it is young, but extends up with age. ‘Golden Spreader’ is a slow growing dwarf, putting on only 2” to 4” of growth a year, becoming 2’ × 3’ in 10 years. It is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8, and is perfect to brighten up a shady corner of the garden. It was introduced in the early 1960s in the Netherlands.
Pinus contorta var. latifolia ‘Chief Joseph’
This gorgeous pine is a stunning example of a golden conifer that lights up a winter landscape. It starts out with medium green foliage in the spring that lightens to yellow-green by late summer, then ignites to a bright yellow-gold in the winter as temperatures drop. Full sun and cold temperatures bring out the strongest color of this tree, making it a shining focal point during the most lackluster time of year in the garden. ‘Chief Joseph’ is an irregular, conical dwarf that grows at a slow rate, only 3” to 6” a year, reaching dimensions of 4’H × 2’W in 10 years. It is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8, and is a cultivar of the lodgepole pine that is native to the US Pacific Northwest and Canada.
Pinus mugo ‘Carstens’
‘Carstens‘ dwarf mugo pine is considered to be one of the best winter gold conifers available. It forms a compact globose shape when young that spreads out into a dense mound with age. Short, medium green needles cover the tree in spring and summer, then cold temperatures in the winter turn the foliage a deep golden hue. Winter temperatures also trigger this little pine to produce decorative shorter needles at the ends of its branches like small circlets. ‘Carstens’ is a very slow growing conifer, only adding 2” to 4” per year. Its mounding form gives it more width than height, attaining only 0.75’H × 2’W in 10 years. It grows best in full sun, and is hardy to USDA zones 2 to 8. Its rich yellow-gold winter color and small size make it a welcome addition to small sunny gardens, rock gardens, and urban settings. ‘Carstens’ was introduced in 1988 in Germany.
Pinus strobus ‘Louie’
The ‘Louie’ white pine is an elegant, colorful, soft-textured tree with long needles. It is globose when young, then opens up to a symmetrical pyramid with age. The foliage is light golden-green during the spring and summer, then begins to turn golden-yellow in the fall. The needles in the interior of the tree often remain yellow-green since they are shaded, but the outer foliage develops a deep golden color in the sun and cold of winter. New spring foliage needs to be protected from bright sun, but once the tree is established, sunshine will bring out the most vivid color. ‘Louie’ grows relatively quickly, at 8” to 10” a year, and achieves dimensions of 8’H × 5’W in 10 years. It is hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8, and is spectacular as a winter gold accent against a dark background. It does not do well in an urban garden, however, since it is sensitive to air pollution.
Pinus sylvestris ‘Moseri’
This dwarf Scots pine is broadly conical with a rounded top. It has the interesting characteristic of producing two lengths of needles. The first growth in the spring is considerably longer than the second growth later in the season, ultimately giving the little tree a dense, fluffy look. The spring and summer foliage is deep green, turning a bright golden-yellow in the winter. It grows slowly at a rate of 2” to 4” a year, becoming only 4’H × 2’W in 10 years. It will grow happily in full sun, and is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8. ‘Moseri’ will brighten up a small garden, rock garden, or urban space. It originated in France around 1900.
Pinus sylvestris ‘Nisbet’s Gold’
‘Nisbet’s Gold’ is a broadly globose tree when it’s young, but with age it opens up to a pyramidal shape. During the spring and summer, this beautiful Scots pine displays medium green needles that explode with golden color at the tips of its branches as the temperatures drop in the winter. It is one of the golden conifers that can grow in full sun. ‘Nisbet’s Gold’ is a medium-sized tree that grows 6” to 9” a year, becoming 8’H × 5’W in 10 years. It is hardy to USDA zones 3 to 8. This is a tree that can brighten up a winter garden as well as display good color all year round. It is sometimes seen as ‘Nisbet Aurea’, which was its original name from a nursery in Germany. But since cultivar names cannot be in Latin according to The International Code of Botanical Nomenclature of 1957, the name Aurea is not legitimate. It was renamed ‘Nisbet’s Gold’ when it was introduced to the U.S. by a nurseryman in Washington.