Sometimes known as "pencil pines" because of their tall, thin profiles, Italian cypress trees are dark evergreen conifers typically planted together as a vertical screen or in a looser row, to block unsightly views or soften the edges of tall buildings. Yet, Italian cypress grows too large for the smaller scale of most home landscapes, advises the University of Florida IFAS Extension. Viable alternatives should feature the "soft foliage" of Italian cypress and be columnar, yet also slow growing or easy to contain.
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Japanese Umbrella Pine
The upright variation of this ancient tree, Sciadopitys verticillata 'Joe Kozey,' introduced by the University of Connecticut, delivers the vertical form of Italian cypress with the more open, breezy feel of long-needled pines. Discovered in the fossil record as far back as the Jurassic period, according to Michigan Landscape magazine's "Conifer Corner," these particular primitive pines are very vertical--"lateral" branches are vertical too--and clusters of pine needles are glossy green.
Tall, thin spruce trees with short, stiff and pendulous branches add considerable grace to screens. Plant them in layers or along staggered lines, rather than branch-to-branch, for greater depth and interest, suggests Michigan Landscape magazine. Or mix varieties; Picea glauca 'Pendula,' weeping white spruce, has bluish grey-green needles and is cold hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture zone 2. Less hardy, but of equal interest, is Picea omorika 'Pendula Bruns,' or Bruns weeping Serbian spruce, with bicolor needles--dark green on top, white below--and sometimes-eccentric growth form. Another striking tree is Picea orientalis 'Skylands,' with needles that emerge sunny yellow on top and dark green below, adding sunny contrast to the evergreen border.
Firs are also good choices, according to Michigan Landscape. Abies concolor 'Conica' is the columnar form of white fir, another appealing option. Hardy to zone 3 and slow growing, these blue-green conifers are compact, short-needled and tidy in the landscape. Other fir fans might prefer Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Fastigiata' or fastigiated Douglas fir, very well suited for use as screening trees.
'Degroot's Spire' Arborvitae
This very columnar dark green conifer provides a formal if petite presence, a similar sensibility to Italian cypress but shorter and thicker. Left alone, these "spires" may grow 10 or 15 feet tall. Thuja occidentalis 'Degroot's Spire' is also ideal when permanently grown in planters or containers for entry or building accents, easy to care for and keep pruned to a manageable size.
Officially known as Cupressus arizonica var. glacuca, Arizona cypress is a striking columnar tree with delicate light grey-green cypress foliage, for "wintry" contrast with darker evergreens. It will grow to 20 or 25 feet tall and tolerate wetter climates so long as winter temperatures don't drop below zero degrees F, according to University of Arkansas Extension. Trees die in early maturity, though, at 20 to 30 years old.
Nootka False Cypress 'Green Arrow'
If ever a plant lived up to its name, this one does--and people either love the result or hate it, according to Michigan Landscape magazine. A Nootka false cypress or, officially, Callitropis nootkatensis, the 'Green Arrow' cultivar is a needle-thin Alaska cedar that does look something like a fuzzy dark-green arrow shaft. Prune away the occasional unruly lateral branch to maintain the illusion.
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- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Cupressus sempervirens 'Glauca,' 'Glauca' Italian Cypress
- University of Connecticut Extension: Sciadopitys verticillata
- University of Arkansas Extension: Plant of the Week--Arizona Cypress, Cupressus arizonica var. glacuca
- The Michigan Landscape magazine, April 2008: Conifer Corner--On the Straight & Narrow