Among the huge range of trees available to the modern gardener some old classics continue to be the most versatile, and pines are definitely one of that group. With a variety of types to choose from, including some of the most imposing trees it’s possible to plant – the Scots pine is an excellent example – there’s one to suit almost any need. If you’re looking for the fresh, wild ambience of a pine, but a Scots pine is too high for your purposes, Pinus mugo is something you should consider.
Pinus mugo, commonly known as the mountain pine or dwarf pine, comes from the mountainous regions of Europe. It grows as high as 9,000 feet up in the Alps, Pyrenees and Carpathian mountains but can thrive anywhere the climate and soil are suitable for it. The Mughus variety is a small cultivar that’s become very popular among gardeners for its appearance and compact size; it’s a versatile tree that serves equally well as a hedge, centerpiece or accent plant, and its characteristics make it ideal for the more creative sort of outdoor design.
Mughus is a shrubby pine that usually reaches a height of five to ten feet, although 15 feet is not unknown. It’s a low-lying variety that tends to spread, so a width of up to ten feet isn’t unusual either. Left alone it will usually form a mounded shape that pushes out tall central candles, which account for most of its height. Mughus grows multiple stems which support dense, bushy foliage consisting of long, bright green needles that grow in pairs. In late summer and fall it also produces female cones up to 2.5 inches long. The bark is rough and gray-brown; apart from its shape and size it has all the characteristics of a larger pine, making it ideal for creating a forest atmosphere in a more restricted space.
Mughus is a relatively easy tree to grow. It prefers moist, well drained loam and you should look for a location that gets full sunlight. It does prefer cooler climates; it’s suitable for USDA plant hardiness zones 2 to 7, so this isn’t a plant you should be considering if you live in one of the hotter southern states. On the other hand it’s ideal in the northern USA, and won’t be at all fazed by a New England winter. Warm, humid summers can cause problems though, as can very intense sunlight. If the soil around it becomes badly drained the Mughus will also struggle and may eventually expire, so keep the ground moist but not waterlogged.
This is a generally robust variety that suffers few major pest or disease problems. It can suffer from tip blight or rust, so look out for needles turning brown before falling off. Also check periodically for sawflies, borers, moths or pine scale; if any of these are spotted treat immediately and you should have few problems. It is quite tolerant to air pollution, making it a good choice for urban gardens where more finicky species may have problems. If you live in a rural area there’s more good news – the Mughus is resistant to deer and rabbits.
Pruning isn’t essential to keep this tree healthy, but if you’re short of space it can be beneficial – left unpruned the Mughus tends to spread out, so if it’s going beyond the area you’ve allocated it cut it back towards the end of winter before new growth starts to appear. Because of its tolerance for pruning it can also be easily shaped into a hedge or even an ornamental design. If you’re looking for something more unusual you’ll be glad to know that Mughus also has potential as a bonsai tree. Of course thanks to its size it goes without saying you can grow one in a suitable large container, making it ideal for adding color and interest to a patio or deck area. Equally, its spreading habits mean you can grow it around the foundations of your home, giving a pleasant softening effect while also presenting a bristly barrier to intruders.
Dwarf conifers are some of the most flexible and interesting plants we carry, and they open up a whole new world of possibilities to the adventurous gardener. Mughus is a particularly good choice, especially for those in northern parts of the USA where cold winters may devastate more delicate plants. Delicacy certainly isn’t something the mountain pine can be accused of; it’s lofty ancestry on Europe’s high, windswept slopes has resulted in a very tough little tree that can stand almost anything the winter can throw at it. Combine this with its resistance to pests and pollution, the multitude of setting sit fits into and its very handy size, and you get something that almost any garden can gain immense benefit from. Its fresh green needles are as attractive peeking through a blanket of snow as they are in the sunlight of a summer evening, and spring will bring a pleasant aroma of new growth. This shrubby tree is definitely one of our top recommendations.