Great Scots

Credit: Ernst Kucklich

I have long admired the majestic beauty of the Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), and being a native of Scotland myself, I feel it is part of my heritage. This particular pine is the only one native to the U.K. and only one of three conifers native to the British Isles. As a child, I remember passing by stands of the Scots pine on the icy road up to Caithness for New Year’s Eve celebrations.

The Scots pine displays many attractive features that have endeared it to me. I particularly like the colour and texture of the bark, especially appealing on a bright day when a clear blue sky dramatically frames the tree’s reddish-brown crown. This colour is most pronounced in older trees and in the crown area. The glaucous blue needles also provide interesting year-round colour, which seems to vary depending on where the seed was collected. As the tree matures I have noticed that it will often lose its leader, perhaps from wind damage, giving the tree more character and greater presence in the garden.

I use the Scots pine to add structure to a garden, especially in spaces where too many deciduous and herbaceous perennials have been used. It makes an ideal backdrop, as well as a good screen for privacy. When the tree matures it will often naturally shed some of its lower branches and this allows the beautiful trunk to become more exposed. It makes a far less imposing statement in the landscape than some of the larger, more coarsely needled pines, like the Austrian pine (P. nigra var. austriaca), and thus will comfortably rub shoulders with some of our wonderful B.C. native trees, such as the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).

As for placement in the garden, I am all for giving this plant plenty of space to mature as it can eventually reach 20 to 25 metres. The Scots pine fares well in poor soil, and once established, can tolerate a dry location.

Hardy as this tree is, I have a few younger plants of the golden Scots pine (P. sylvestris ‘Aurea’) that I recently noticed were afflicted with a conspicuous white woolly wax. I treated this particular pest, known as woolly adelgid, with Safer’s soap on the foliage (a good drenching, as the pest likes to colonize the base of the needles where it can be hard to reach) and a little rubbing alcohol (used sparingly) on the stems.

For propagation of the Scots pine, growing by seed is the best method. Seed collected in the fall can be sown immediately or saved and sown early the following year. If you require a large number of the trees, sow the seeds in an outdoor bed. It is worth noting that Pinus sylvestris is a commonly used understock for grafting not only the many cultivars of Scots pine but also other cultivars of species such as Pinus leucodermis, P. mugo and P. thunbergii.

For a smaller garden or container plantings, I would choose one of the cultivars of the Scots pine. Here are just four of the more than 200 cultivars recorded.

P. sylvestris ‘Aurea’ A favourite of mine and a real winner for brightening up the winter garden, as its golden-yellow colouration intensifies as the weather gets colder. It is fairly slow-growing, with a 10-year height of around one to two metres, although I saw a specimen last year at Glamis Castle in Scotland that was 12 metres – no doubt this one was a good old age.

P. sylvestris ‘Beacon Hill’ Originated as a witch’s broom, a phenomenon where dense growths form on the branch of a conifer sometimes caused by an insect attack. When pieces (scions) of these growths are grafted they often show dwarf conifer characteristics and will not grow as fast as the mother plant. This plant was discovered in Victoria, B.C. It is a slow-growing plant that I often see grafted onto a metre-long stem to form a standard that is useful for containers and that can be underplanted with some flowering subjects. Has attractive bluish-green needles. It only reaches to about a metre in 10 years so you won’t need to worry too much about pruning to control the height!

P. sylvestris ‘Watereri’ Although a fairly slow-growing cultivar, this is not a dwarf. The original ‘Watereri’ plant in the U.K. is 7.5 metres high and was planted around 1855. Expect about 1.5 to two metres in 10 years for width and height.

P. sylvestris ‘Repens’ A great little ground-covering plant that I like to see in the rock garden helping to keep the weeds down. In time it will form some real character with a bit of creative pruning. Will reach 45 to 70 centimetres in width and height after 10 years of growth. Looks superb cascading over rocks.

I have provided here just a small taste of the many types of Scots pine available, which I hope will encourage more use of this wonderful pine and other conifers in our B.C. gardens. This plant is hardy to zone 3 (I have even seen it listed as zone 2) and thus would suit all areas of British Columbia.

Certainly such an aspiration would suit poet William Wordsworth, who, in a letter written to nurseryman James Grigor in 1844, expressed how he preferred the Scots pine “to all other trees except the oak, taking into consideration its beauty in winter, and by moonlight, and in the evening.”

A transplanted Scot who immigrated to Canada six years ago, Gordon Mackay owns and operates Alba Landscape Consultants on Vancouver Island. He readily admits to a strong and enduring passion for conifers.