The year was 1970 and Alice Hand Callaway, always a lover of plants, decided to begin a collection of conifers (cone-bearing plants) in the garden. These new additions are documented by a long list of plants purchased from Mayfair Nurseries between 1970 and 1973. Most of these new conifers were planted in the lower garden below the pool terrace, which we now call the Ray Garden. Placed around the perimeter of the garden, they would soon provide an evergreen backdrop to frame the seasonal flower displays in the center of the garden.
Ever the adventuresome gardener, this was mostly a new plant group for Mrs. Callaway, but conifers as a group were not completely new to the garden. Sarah Ferrell had planted a China fir, Eastern red cedars, European larch, cedar of Lebanon, ginkgo and assorted pines. Garden descriptions during Ida Callaway’s time referred to hemlocks, pines, arborvitae, Japanese cedar and yews. In earlier years Alice Callaway had planted several conifers around the garden but it was in the early 1970s when her fascination with this class of plants really took off. Despite a wide array of complex names, Mrs. Callaway was not deterred and acquired over fifty different varieties.
Alice Callaway cultivated regular and dwarf varieties in this new garden and many are still thriving today. As they have a tendency to do, some of the so called dwarfs have grown much larger than she anticipated. These survivors vary in shape, size, color and texture. One particularly striking group she added in the Ray Garden area were golden false cypresses which provide an attractive thread-like texture coupled with a golden-yellow hue. Among those that survived are Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’, ‘Gold Mop’ and ‘Goldie’, which contrast nicely against the dark green of Carolina hemlock and Japanese cedar. She didn’t have much luck with a number of the firs and spruces, probably because they prefer cooler climates, but still she tried nearly a dozen different ones.
Other groups of conifers that Alice Callaway cherished and cultivated were the yews and the junipers. From the yew family she planted European (Taxus baccata) and Japanese plum (Cephalotaxus harringtonia), both of which thrived. To represent the juniper family she added an assortment of low growing groundcovers including a very nice variegated juniper known as Juniperus davarica ‘Expansa Variegata’ which is still striking today.
This appreciation for conifers resulted in one change that seemed particularly appropriate for the Italian villa style home. Beginning in the early 1980s, Mrs. Callaway added several Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) trees at strategic points around the house. These dark green pencil shaped exclamation marks rise from the earth and pierce the sky thereby linking the garden to its surroundings. While they look like they have always been there, these relatively new additions impart a very distinctive look to the landscape. Recently, a visitor not knowing the Italian cypress or the nature of how it grows remarked that the busy nearby gardener had trimmed the tree a little too thin!
A recent inventory of the conifer collection at the estate revealed a catalog of over 30 varieties that hail from at least 13 different genera. Such an assemblage is noteworthy, certainly, but is also a real boon for those interested in viewing these elegant plants in a garden setting and at their mature size. Due to their ease of culture and great popularity, most of the specimens we have growing can be easily obtained. So we invite you to come and take a closer look, study and perhaps jot a few favorites down to add to your garden. Not much would have pleased Mrs. Callaway more.