You Can Have Your Pine and Eat It, Too - Eventually

Needled evergreens have been described as the “backbones of the landscape.”
You Can Have Your Pine and Eat It, Too - Eventually - Articles

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Swiss stone pine, Pinus cembra, is a slow growing, stately conifer that is well-suited for smaller landscapes.

They are the unchanging canvas designers use as a foil for flowering trees and shrubs, herbaceous ornamentals, and even turfgrass areas. Unfortunately, some of the most commonly used and available needled evergreens grow very large and quickly outgrow their allotted space. The next thing you know, owners are limbing them up and topping them, destroying their beauty and function (not mention embarrassing them in front of all the other trees).

Swiss stone pine, Pinus cembra, is a slow growing, stately conifer that reaches 30-40 feet tall and 15-20 feet wide. It has a dense, upright-pyramidal growth habit in youth that becomes more open and spreading at maturity. Swiss stone pine bears its 2-5-inch blue-green needles in fascicles of five, and they persist on the tree for up to five years.

Best in full sun and well-drained, slightly acidic soil, Swiss stone pine is very hardy (USDA Zones 3-7) and tolerant of wind and salt. The tree is native to Central Europe, ranging from the Alps to the Carpathian Mountains. Swiss stone pine and Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea) are the main sources for the pine nuts consumed in Europe. Swiss stone pine takes 14-16 years to begin to bear cones, and it takes cones three years to mature, so patience is required if you want to harvest pine nuts.

Its slow growth rate is sometimes listed as a liability, because it expensive to purchase plants of any size and it is not as widely available as other conifers. But its long functional life in the landscape makes Swiss stone pine a priceless asset and well worth the effort to find. Excellent when planted as a specimen or group, Swiss stone pine fits well in smaller landscapes.

Cultivars include:

  • 'Compacta' - slow growing to 15 feet tall and wide.
  • 'Nana' - slow-growing with a pyramidal habit; two feet tall in ten years.
  • 'Stricta' ('Columnaris') - Growth habit is more columnar and narrow than the species. According to Michael Dirr, "at times seems to be the predominant form in cultivation."

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