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Shrubs With Golden Foliage: False Cypress

Gold Thread, Gold Mops False Cypress


Photo of Cripps false cypress.

Photo of Cripps false cypress.

David Beaulieu

Plant names can drive you crazy, sometimes. The false cypress (sometimes spelled, "falsecypress") genus, Chamaecyparis, is a case in point. But all confusion over plant names aside, the false cypress genus is clearly a favorite among homeowners. I'm especially impressed with the shrubs in this genus whose golden foliage beams so brightly in the landscape.

The Truth About "False Cypress"

I'll begin by trying to clear up the confusion caused by the common names attributed to some of the plants in the false cypress genus. In this case, however, not even scientific plant names are exempt from criticism, as the confusion begins with the very fact that Chamaecyparis does not break down neatly to "false cypress." Rather, Chamaecyparis translates literally to "ground cypress" (the Greek, chamai meaning, "on the ground"). This, despite the fact that some species of false cypress, far from "hugging the ground," grow up to be towering trees!

Although not true cypresses, the trees and shrubs in the false cypress genus belong to the cypress family. Other genera in this family include -- you guessed it -- the true cypresses, along with the junipers and the arborvitae.

Some of the most gorgeous trees and shrubs in the landscape belong to the false cypress genus, including:

  • Hinoki cypress
  • Weeping Alaskan cedar
  • The "threadleaf" group of shrubs, such as 'Gold Mops' false cypress, 'Dwarf Gold Thread' false cypress, etc.

Again, note the confusion over names. Although commonly referred to as "Hinoki cypress" trees, these very popular Japanese specimens (Chamaecyparis obtusa) are not true cypresses. One of my favorites is Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Crippsii', the "Cripps" golden Hinoki cypress (see picture, above right).

From a linguistic standpoint, matters stand still worse with Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula', commonly known as the "weeping Alaskan cedar" (aka "weeping Alaska-cedar," "weeping Nootka-cedar"). Another false cypress, this tree is even less a "cedar" than it is a "cypress!" Nor should the blue-colored cultivar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Glauca Pendula,' be confused with another "weeping blue cedar," namely, the weeping blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula'). The latter is a true cedar.

Threadleaf False Cypress: Shrubs With Golden Foliage

Of Japanese or "Sawara" falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera), the Ohio State University Extension writes that "the species form, which is rarely available in the nursery trade, is a 60' tall by 20' wide tree, but the small, medium, and large shrub forms commonly available in the trade range from 3' to 20' tall by similar widths, depending upon cultivar."

Some of these false cypress shrubs fall into the so-called "Filifera" or "threadleaf" group and boast a showy greenish-golden to golden foliage. They are sold under a number of cultivar names, such as 'Gold Mops' (or 'Gold Mop'; for a photo, click the picture above right to access my mini-photo gallery), 'Dwarf Gold Thread' (or 'Filifera Aurea Nana') and 'King's Gold.' What all these shrub cultivars share is a scaley, golden foliage that is string-like in form. The latter trait is the reason for the designation, "Filifera," which is Latin for "thread-bearing"; so in all this confusion of names, "threadleaf," at least, should be easy to remember.

Chamaecyparis pisifera shrubs are evergreen, but not in the literal sense. "Evergreen" means having foliage that persists and retains its color throughout the year, rather than changing color according to the seasons. The term, "evergreen" is, then, something of a misnomer, as the color in question needn't be green. For instance, blue spruce trees and Blue Star juniper shrubs are evergreens, but the color they retain throughout the year is a silvery blue. In the case of a cultivar such as Gold Mops false cypress, a golden foliage is retained year-round (provided it gets enough sun).

In comparing the Gold Mops and Dwarf Gold Thread ('Filifera Aurea Nana') cultivars, Ohio State observes that

yellow scale-like foliage [on Gold Mops -- ed.] covers the thin pendulous (mop-like) stems with a relatively low semi-weeping habit, slowly maturing to 5' tall by 7' wide; the golden-yellow color stays that way if the plant is sited in full sun, unlike many other "golden" cultivars (such as 'Filifera Aurea Nana') which fade by mid-Summer to yellow-green or green-chartreuse; unfortunately, the exposure of 'Mops' in full sun also makes it prone to winterburn in northern climates, creating unattractive yellow-brown foliage throughout much of the Winter

I myself grow the threadleaf cultivar, Chamaecyparis pisifera 'King's Gold'. Suitable for planting zones 4-8, its mature size is listed as 18"-24" tall by 3' wide. I grow mine in full sun (in the summer) so as to achieve lasting golden foliage. Fortunately for me, the angle of the sun is such in winter that, during this period, it is not in full sun, perhaps accounting for why I have largely avoided winterburn on the shrub.

With their fine texture, these threadleaf false cypress shrubs are invaluable for injecting interest into the yard, and their golden foliage opens up some interesting options when developing landscape color schemes. In the first picture of my focal points photo gallery, notice the effect of the juxtaposition of the deep red barberries with the golden foliage of the false cypress. It creates an instant focal point.

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