Article and photos by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

As you enter the Morris Arboretum from the main parking lot, you will encounter a tall stainless steel sculpture, Two Lines, by the American artist George Rickey; it marks the former site of the Morris mansion, which stood there from 1889–1968. Straight downhill is a striking, large evergreen from the original Morris estate called Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Squarrosa'. ‘Squarrosa’ is a very old cultivar originating in Japan; first brought to Europe in 1843, it is not surprising that the Morrises had this cultivar in their collection.

1932-1127*A Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Squarrosa’ downhill from the Two Lines sculpture (inset)

Deconstructed, this plant name is less daunting.

First: Chamaecyparis. Translates to “low-growing cypress”—Chamaecyparis is in the cypress family.

Second: pisifera. Means “pea-bearing”— the globose immature green cones resemble peas.

1932-1127*A Chamecyparis pisifera ‘Squarrosa’


Third: ‘Squarrosa.’ Chamaecyparis pisifera has mossy juvenile foliage with awl-like leaves that are squarrose i.e. spreading outwards almost 90 degrees from the stem; adult foliage has leaves that lie flat against the stem producing a scale-like effect. Since this cultivar was selected for a mutation that resulted in juvenile leaves, it was named ‘Squarrosa.’ Sometimes, however, the mutation reverts, and some adult foliage is seen on ‘Squarrosa,’ as in the photo below.

1932-1127*A Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Squarrosa’ Dark green scale-like adult foliage on the left
contrasts with bluish-green squarrose juvenile foliage on the right. Each juvenile leaf is described as awl-like
i.e. tapering to a slender, stiff point at the end. (Inset photo shows an awl for comparison.)

Dimorphic juvenile and adult leaves also occur in some members of the cypress family besides Chamaecyparis e.g. Cupressus (cypress) and Juniperus (juniper). Physiologic studies have shown that juvenile-type leaves are advantageous for growth and adult-type leaves enhance stress tolerance.

The straight species, Chamaecyparis pisifera, grew on the original Morris estate along with the cultivars ‘Squarrosa,’ ‘Plumosa Argentea,’ ‘Plumosa Nana,’ ‘Filifera’ and ‘Filifera Aurea.’

Many of these old trees and/or established cuttings of them can still be seen gracing the Morris Arboretum. Their leaves distinguish them: the species has juvenile leaves succeeded by adult leaves (as nature intended), ‘Squarrosa’ produces primarily the juvenile leaves, ‘Plumosa’ produces semi-juvenile leaves, intermediate in length and transitional in form between juvenile leaves and adult leaves, and ‘Filifera’ describes branchlets bearing thread-like strands of adult leaves.

Over the years, additional cultivars have been added to the Morris Arboretum to include compressed, pygmy, and variegated cultivars, for a total of 13 cultivars; with more than one hundred cultivars of C. pisifera available, selectivity is required! Exact locations can be found at Collection Connection

P.S. If the thought of uttering Chamaecyparis pisifera makes you feel tongue-tied, go online to Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder, where you can hear the pronunciation of this and thousands of other plant names!

Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and freelance writer. You can contact her with comments or requests for photos at botanicaltours.weebly.com.