Conifers are among the cornerstone plants at the Botanical Garden, framing our vistas and truly setting the tone for our 55 acres of plant life. They sport a stunning array of botanical features. Their foliage offers an array of color, from green to gold to blue. They range in size from the tallest tree in the world – Sequoia sempervirens (coast redwood) – to small dwarf forms. Although we often associate conifers with needle-like leaves like those on Christmas trees, the broadleaf Ginkgo biloba is also a conifer. From the oldest known trees in the world (bristlecone pine) to some of the fastest growing, we invite you to explore our collection of conifers spread throughout the Botanical Garden.
Five Key Conifer Collections
There are over 600 species of conifers currently recognized worldwide and the Botanical Garden has over 250. Conifers can be found in almost every garden section. The following gardens have a higher concentration and should not be missed.
James Nobel Dwarf Conifer Garden
In 1960, a collection of 372 dwarf conifer specimens was presented to the Arboretum by Effie V. Nobel. At the time, it was one of the most important collections of dwarf conifers in the United States. Mrs. Nobel and her late husband, James E. Nobel spent a good portion of their lives searching for rare and unusual dwarf plants. The dwarf conifers in this collection are all naturally dwarf, not trained or contrived like Japanese bonsai. This location is ideal consisting of protected slopes surrounding a reflecting pond. Currently, there are over 100 species of conifers in the James Nobel Dwarf Conifer Garden.
Dawn Redwood Grove
Located in the Temperate Asia collection is a small grove of dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Once considered extinct and known only from fossil records, these majestic trees with fluted trunks were grown from seed from trees discovered by Chinese botanists in the Szechuan province. The earliest plantings at the Botanical Garden are from 1950, making them some of the oldest plantings in the United States.
Located in the western section of the Garden between New Zealand and the Redwood Grove is a collection of conifers placed in and growing around a large lawn. Over 30 species of conifers can be found here with highlights including Abies (fir) and Picea (spruce) species and Sequoiadendron giganteum (giant redwood).
The Redwood Grove is home to 100-year-old coast redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens) and the only place to view a mature redwood forest in San Francisco. It includes associated native understory trees and shrubs, groundcovers and one-hundred years of leaf litter (called 'duff'.) A special feature is a rare albino form of redwood tree. This garden was designed and planted to emulate a California Native redwood forest.
In the mid-1800's, over 450,000 canopy trees were planted throughout Golden Gate Park. Two of the three main species planted were conifers: Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey cypress) and Pinus radiata (Monterey pine). Looking from almost any vantage point in the Garden, one can see the mature specimens, particularly of Monterey cypress, standing guard over the rest of the plant collection. Due to the age of the canopy, the Botanical Garden loses limbs and sometimes entire trees during winter storms. In 2009, a canopy tree succession plan was created to coordinate the replacement of the aging canopy. The focus of this plan is to replace the three main canopy species with trees endemic to respective geographic collections that are currently in the Botanical Garden.
Two Important Conifer Families at SFBG
This family of mostly southern hemisphere conifers is represented by 13 genera at the Garden: Nageia, Phyllocladus, Podocarpus, Prumnopitys, and Saxegothaea to name a few. Concentrations of plants in this family can be found in the Ancient Plant Garden, and the South Africa, New Zealand and Andean Cloud Forest collections.
This southern hemisphere family of conifers is ancient and includes three genera: Araucaria, Agathis and Wollemia. All three can be found spread around a few of the Garden's collections (Ancient Plant Garden, Andean Cloud Forest, Australia and New Zealand) with seven species of Agathis and eight species of Araucaria. Wollemia nobilis is the only species in the genus Wollemia, once thought extinct until a grove of trees was discovered in the Blue Mountains 100 miles outside Sydney, Australia in the mid-1990's.
Norfolk Island Pine
Four True Cedars
Conifers Around the World
Conifers Around the World is the culmination of an unprecedented 30-year project to document all the conifers in the world's temperate zones and their adjacent regions. Dendrologist Zsolt Debreczy and nature photographer István Rácz spent an astounding 2,000 days in the field studying conifers on every continent except Antarctica. In this gorgeous two-volume 1,089-page book Debreczy and Rácz describe more than 500 species and subspecies of conifers in 56 genera. This remarkable new resource on conifers can be viewed at the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture. It was generously donated by Richard G. Turner, Jr., Ted Kipping, Scot Medbury, Stewart Winchester and Peter Ehrlich.
Conifers of California
by Ronald Lanner, $24.95. Members get 10% off at the Garden Bookstore.
The Redwood Trail Walking Tour (podcast)
Fog and the Redwoods (podcast)
Stybing Arboretum's Collection of Pines from Mexico (PDF, 1994)
Update: Pinus oaxacana has had a name change to Pinus pseudostrobus var. apulcensis; Pinus cooperi is no longer in the collection; new species introduced to the collection: Pinus devoniana, Pinus patula, Pinus rudis, Pinus teocote.