Garden Dilemmas, Delights & Discoveries, Ask Mary Stone, New Jersey Garden blog

Mystery of Mutating Alberta Spruce

a tightly branched Alberta Spruce shrub with a mutating branch reverting to a regular white spruce.

Hello fellow readers, We chatted recently about grafted weeping cherry trees that can revert to their rootstock and shoot out straight branches, often flowering a different color. Matthew from Hope, NJ, asked if that’s what’s happening to his Alberta Spruce. “It looks like an alien tree is growing out from the side.”

a tightly branched Alberta Spruce shrub with a mutating branch reverting to a regular white spruce

“It looks like an alien tree is growing out from the side.”

The mystery of mutating Alberta Spruce

As it turns out, Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) is a naturally occurring dwarf of White Spruce (Picea glauca), initially spotted in Alberta, Canada, in 1904, hence the common name. So it’s not grafted or intentionally hybridized. Essentially something went whacky caused by a genetic mutation that became a popular new cultivar in the landscape industry. Matthew’s plant’s “alien tree” is a portion reverting to its regular growth.

While you can prune out the section sooner than later to avoid a big hole, “once you have it, you’ll always have it,” coached my go-to nurseryman Ben Jansen. The good news is because it’s a reverse mutation, not a disease, it won’t spread to other plants. So don’t worry about the other Alberta Spruce reverting, though I read up to ten percent of them do.

An Alberta Spruce lineup makes me think of an ellipsis (…)

Alberta Spruce Design Tips

Speaking of Alberta Spruce, I often come upon a lineup along a road presumably planted to offer screening which always brings a giggle as they are very slow-growing. They’ll grow 10-12 feet in 25-30 years, so I suppose if used as screening in 25 years, mission accomplished. But until they mature, spacing them apart with a gap in the lineup makes me think of an ellipsis (…) at the end of a sentence.

Alberta Spruce remains conical in shape unless pruned into an ornamental shape such as spirals or poodles called a topiary. So once they grow together, they’ll look like a lineup of cones. But I’ve seen them in clever groupings, making me think of gnomes. You know, the mythical human-like figurines that Travelocity made famous.

a gnome figurine with a red hat holding a floral wreath sitting on a counter top.

Garden gnomes symbolize luck and protection.

Garden Gnome Folklore

Did you know that garden gnome lawn ornaments brought on trips and photographed in front of famous landmarks is a practice called gnoming? Maybe the trend is fading, though the topic came up during a weekly volunteer sing at Hospice. There’s a garden gnome there gracing the countertop, and a nurse thought we should place it outside under the tulips in the garden.

Tulips symbolize deep love, rebirth, and charity— meaning helping someone in need. And garden gnomes are a symbol of good luck and protection. So the idea of placing a garden gnome under the tulips at the Karen Ann Quinlan Home for Hospice warms my heart.

Regarding their role in garden design, consider Alberta Spruce a specimen, so strategically placing one, say at the side of a walkway or next to a door, is fitting and perfect for adding holiday lights. Or why not have a gathering of planted gnomes in your garden. Maybe add some eyes, a beard, and a pointy hat to dress them up. Though I suppose they can’t travel like gnome ornaments can (smile).

Mary Stone with her nephew Austin and his wife Sammi at Rockefeller Center NYC.

I was thrilled when my nephew Austin Stone and bride Sammi wished to meet up while visiting New York City in June of 2019.

Genetic mutations can be harmful – a personal note.

In the case of Alberta Spruce, the genetic mutation was beneficial, turning into a lovely specimen plant. But mutations can be harmful. If I may end on a personal note – my nephew Austin’s wife was airlifted to Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville last week. Sammi has been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of Lymphoma that grew secretly inside her. Please join my family and me in prayer that the heroic treatment measures and the power of prayer heal her. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Garden Dilemmas? AskMaryStone@gmail.com (and your favorite Podcast App.)

Link to the column about Reverting Weeping Cherry 

Fun Links for more about  The symbolism and color meaning of tulips and the History of the Traveling Gnome

There’s more to this story in Episode 57 of the Garden Dilemmas Podcast:

Mary Stone, owner of Stone Associates Landscape Design & Consulting. As a Landscape Designer, I am grateful for the joy of helping others beautify their surroundings which often leads to sharing encouragement and life experiences. These relationships inspired my weekly column published in THE PRESS, 'Garden Dilemmas? Ask Mary', began in 2012. I dream of growing the evolving community of readers into an interactive forum to share encouragement and support in Garden and Personal Recoveries - seeking nature’s inspirations, stimulating growth, weeding undesirables, embracing the unexpected. Thank you for visiting! Mary
  1. vicki Reply

    Dearest Mary,
    I am so sorry to read your news and will keep your dear Sammi and Austin and you in my heart and prayers.
    ❤️❤️❤️

    • Mary Stone Reply

      Thank you, my dear friend; your heart and prayers mean so much, Mary

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