Sandy’s Garden ... Lawson’s Cypress

Gardening correspondent Sandy Simpson
Gardening correspondent Sandy Simpson
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I don’t know how you feel when you at home and you hear the THWUMP which means that your Postman has pushed some letters through your letterbox.

It’s a sound that I enjoy. THWUMP brings with it the possibility of letters from friends, or perhaps an eagerly-awaited magazine, news of a win in some competition or other, a holiday brochure, or whatever.

Of course, the reality id usually much duller than the anticipation … a flyer from a local supermarket enthusing about their German wine bargains, a promise that, “Only twenty people in your street have been selected by our computer for the final stages of this million-pound prize draw!”, a couple of bills and an unrepeatable offer on spectacle frames. But the other day my mail included a catalogue from a company which specialises in bulbs; and I was surprised to see how much of this alleged bulb catalogue was actually devoted to other plants, for more than one-half of the pages were dedicated to perennial border plants, to shrubs and to trees. And, in amongst the trees, shrubs and hedging plants was Chamaecyparis Lawsoniana, Lawson’s Cypress, supposedly the most widely-grown hedging plant in the United Kingdom.

It comes originally from the United States of America, having been found by the Scots botanist William Murray in the valley of the Sacramento River in the state of California. Murray gathered some seed from this previously-unknown (in Europe) species of Cypress and sent them home to a nurseryman friend in Scotland, who did exactly what was expected of him … planted them and nursed the seedlings into early life. But when, in the fullness of time, he saw the attractive trees which developed and realised the sales potential of his crop, he didn’t call them Murray’s Cypress, after his friend who had found them. He gave them his own name. And so Lawson’s cypress was the name by which the new-to-Britain plants became known.

Lawson’s Cypress quickly found favour as plants for dense, wind-breaking hedges, rather surprisingly in view of the fact that the trees don’t particularly appreciate windy, exposed sites. But they do form very dense screens indeed and do make very efficient hedging plants if a dense screen is what is required. And they found favour in another way as well, for Lawson’s cypress was planted in some gardens as what is called a ‘specimen plant’, standing erect and on its own in a lawn, a rockery or a bed of flowers, catching the eye of the beholder with its proud shape and intense colour, which it keep all the year round, for Lawson’s Cypress is an evergreen. But in truth, although we call them evergreen, the different varieties of Lawson’s Cypress which are available nowadays can be anything from blue-grey through grey-green to dark green, light green and even golden yellow; and these different varieties grow to as many different heights as there are different colours, from low bushes to tall, upright pillars.

And Lawson’s Cypress became valued for other characteristics. The wood is light, has great strength is very resistant to rot, and is particularly highly rated in east Asia, with large amounts being exported to Japan to be used in the manufacture of coffins, in shrines and in temples. The wood has an attractive, gingery scent; and the straight grain and lightness of the wood means that it is useful in building light aircraft and in making arrows. But gardeners, beware! Some species will grow to more than 65 metres tall … say, 200 feet. You are very unlikely to want a hedge made from these varieties unless you are a neighbour-hating hermit!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society