Although trees are a vital element in giving your garden the right balance there’s usually a limit on how many you can plant. They’re large, after all, and few of us have the space for more than a handful. That makes it important to get the most from the ones you have room for, which makes evergreens a tempting choice. When you plant an evergreen you maximize the benefits to your garden by adding something that will be attractive all year round, not just in the warmer seasons. That’s important because otherwise, in winter, your garden can easily become a lifeless scene of bare branches and withered foliage. Evergreens will avoid that, as well as reminding you through the coldest months that nature endures and will return to life when spring arrives.
Most people associate evergreens with the snowy north but they’re actually widely distributed. Cedars come from a region stretching from the western Himalayas to the shores of the Mediterranean, and they’ve been cultivated for centuries – both for their valuable timber and for their looks. Unlike some trees they don’t give a show of flowers in the spring, but they do look good all year round thanks to their rich foliage and attractive forms. They also have a fresh natural perfume that will give your garden an exotic touch on those warm summer evenings.
The Blue Atlas cedar is a fairly large member of the family; it takes its name from its native range, the Atlas mountains of Algeria and Morocco. In the wild it often grows to a hundred feet or more, and sometimes over 130, but cultivated specimens usually reach between 40 and 60 feet when mature. Young trees have a roughly pyramidal shape like many conifers but as they age they develop a bare lower trunk and a spreading flat-topped crown that can extend to between 30 and 40 feet across. The trunk is usually straight and covered in rough red-brown bark. This tree’s outstanding feature is its dense foliage, made up of clusters of slightly curved needles that grow to around an inch long. The Blue Atlas is a Glauca variety of the species and its needles are a particularly attractive green-blue color with a silvery tint. A mature tree forms red-brown cones up to five inches long, although three and a half inches is a more common size, that can remain on the branches for several years before falling. An interesting feature is that the cones grow vertically upwards from the branches. Cones come in both male and female varieties and the make ones can release substantial amounts of pollen.
Blue Atlas is rated as suitable for USDA plant hardiness zones 6 through 9, making it ideal for most of the South and large parts of both seaboards. It does tend to suffer in very hard winters, so it’s not ideal for New England or more northern parts of the Midwest. It will handle hot and humid summers very well, thanks to its North African heritage, but if you’re as far north as St. Louis it’s best to plant it in a protected location to ensure it survives the winter. Look for a spot with acidic, well-drained loam, and make sure there’s plenty of it because this tree puts down a deep root system. It will do much better in full sunlight, so avoid shade. Thanks to its height this becomes less of an issue when it’s matured. When the cedar is young ensure it’s watered regularly to prevent the root zone drying out but once it’s well established it will have quite good drought tolerance.
There are few pest or disease problems with the Blue Atlas cedar although it’s worth keeping an eye open for tip blight. One thing to be aware of is that heavy snow can break branches, as their level shape tends to catch and hold large accumulations. Young trees can be wrapped in burlap during heavy snowfalls to reduce buildup but with larger specimens this can be difficult. Be aware that older trees can sometimes drop branches without warning; water collecting in the crown can cause rot, so it’s worth having mature specimens checked annually by a tree surgeon.
This attractive cedar’s drought tolerance makes it a very versatile tree if you live in an area with warm summers but winters too cool for deciduous plants to hold their foliage through the year. It’s best suited to use as a specimen plant; while it can be pruned where necessary if it’s interfering with power lines or your home, it isn’t really practical to keep its size down. The form it takes when mature also rules it out for planting a screen as the bare trunks will allow a good view between them. On the other hand as a centerpiece for a large lawn, with some shade-loving flowering shrubs planted around it to add interest, it can be absolutely spectacular.