US National Arboretum


Gotelli Virtual Tour

A Rich Tapestry of Foliage Textures

picture from the conifer collection Conifers, known botanically as gymnosperms, are a diverse group of plants with sizes, shapes, textures, and colors that go beyond the conical, needle-leaved evergreens that we all think of.  Some conifers, like larch and baldcypress, even shed their leaves in the fall like deciduous trees.  Conifers are plants that do not have flowers–instead, they have cones.  Usually the seeds grow on the surface of the cone scales without any covering; hence the term gymnosperm, meaning ‘naked seed’.

Conifers were some of the first plants to colonize land more than 300 million years ago.  They were dominant in tropical forests and fed plant-eating dinosaurs.  Some species that were long thought to be extinct have been found to be alive and well in isolated forests.  The dawn redwood was discovered in China in 1949, and the Wollemi pine was discovered in Australia in 1994. Conifers are the largest and tallest living trees.  The tallest tree in the world is a coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, and the oldest tree is thought to be a bristlecone pine, Pinus longaeva.

The centerpiece of the National Arboretum Conifer Collection is the Gotelli Collection of Dwarf and Slow Growing Conifers.  [Click here to take a Virtual Tour of the Gotelli Collection of Dwarf and Slow Growing Conifer Collection]. Although many of the plants are more than 50 years old, they grow extremely slowly; the smallest plant of those that date back to the start of the collection is a Hinoki false cypress that is about 10 inches in height with a spread of 16 inches.  This fascinating collection contains a range of colors, forms, and textures that is sure to leave you in awe of the diversity of conifers.  Japanese maples, crapemyrtles, ornamental grasses, daffodils, and other plants are intermingled with the conifers and mark each season with dramatic change.  The majority of  plants in the collection were donated by conifer collector William Gotelli, who amassed one of the most extensive collections in the United States.  It was moved to the Arboretum in 1962.  It is one of the finest collections of dwarf conifers in the world; the climate at the U.S. National Arboretum allows us to grow some conifers that hail from areas near the Arctic and conifers that are nearly subtropical and cannot withstand long periods of bitter cold.  You can even see a lovely large bed of  the U.S. National Arboretum Introduction 'Blue Lagoon' shore juniper, planted near the roadside with river birches and hemlocks.

An inviting gazebo provides a restful point for contemplation; the Gotelli Collection spreads out to the northeast below.  On the south side of the hill, the Watnong Collection features numerous dwarf pines.  The collection takes its name from the former Watnong Nursery in New Jersey, which took its name from a Native American name meaning 'little hill'.  Many of the pines in the collection come from the estate of Watnong Nursery owners Donald and Hazel Smith.  A variety of Japanese maples and their close maple relatives sweep down the northwest slope of the hill.  From here, the autumn glory of native trees visible on the slopes of Mount Hamilton in the distance are the perfect complement to the bright yellow, orange, red, and coral hues of the maples.   An expanse of spruces is planted below the slope, and a planting of firs is visible in the distance further down Holly Spring Road.  Both provide a bold green framework for this seasonally changing panorama.  Crapemyrtles in research fields between the spruce and fir plantings provide stunning color at summer's height.

The Conifer Collections cover a large area and you should plan for plenty of time if you want to see everything.  The casual visitor may want to spend a half hour or an hour; gardeners who have fallen in love with conifers could easily spend at least a half day.  Be sure to bring paper and pencil so you can jot down names of plants you want to seek out in your next trip to your favorite nursery.  Grass paths lie between the beds in the Gotelli Collection and the rest of the Conifer Collection is designed for leisurely wandering with no clearly defined paths.  The collection is not handicapped accessible but much of it can be enjoyed in a slow ride around Conifer Road.  It's a good idea to bring some water if you plan to stay long, especially during the hot summer months.   The Dogwood Collection, the Asian Collections, and the Holly Magnolia Collection are within walking distance of the Conifer Collections.

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Last Updated   August 25, 2005 12:11 PM
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