Shrubs With Golden Foliage: False Cypress

Gold Thread, Gold Mops, Cripps, King's Gold

King's Gold (image) has golden foliage. It is a taller version of Gold Mops.
King's Gold is one of the false cypress trees with golden foliage. David Beaulieu

Plant names can drive you crazy, sometimes. The false cypress genus, Chamaecyparis, is a case in point. But all confusion over plant names aside, this colorful genus is clearly a favorite among American homeowners, who have planted 'Gold Mops,' for example, across the United States. People are especially impressed with the Chamaecyparis shrubs whose golden foliage beams so brightly in the landscape.

Their color is at its best in the spring season, but some plants do a good job of retaining this bright color during the summer, too, as is explained below.

The Truth About "False Cypress"

Let's 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, even scientific plant names can lead folks astray.

The confusion begins with the very fact that the name, 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 in the genus, far from "hugging the ground," grow up to be tall 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 the true cypresses, along with the junipers and the arborvitae.

Some of the most gorgeous trees and shrubs in the landscape are types of Chamaecyparis, including:

Again, note the confusion over names. Although commonly referred to as "Hinoki cypress" trees, these very popular Japanese plants (Chamaecyparis obtusa) are not true cypresses.

A favorite is Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Crippsii', the "Cripps" golden Hinoki cypress.

The confusion is still worse with Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula', commonly known as the "weeping Alaskan cedar. It is also known as the "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.

The Threadleaf Group: Shrubs With Golden Foliage

Of Japanese or "Sawara" false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera), the Ohio State University Extension writes that "the species form, which is rarely available in the nursery trade," stands 60 feet tall by 20 feet wide, adding, however, that "the small, medium, and large shrub forms commonly available in the trade" give homeowners smaller choices from which to choose (plants with a height of from 3 feet to 20 feet, and with similar widths).

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:

  1. 'Gold Mops' (USDA planting zones 5-7)
  2. 'Dwarf Gold Thread' (or 'Filifera Aurea Nana'; planting zones 5-8)
  3. 'Sun Gold' (planting zones 4-8)
  4. 'King's Gold' (planting zones 4-8)

What all of these shrub cultivars share is a scaly, golden foliage that is string-like in form. The latter trait is the reason for the name, "Filifera," which is Latin for "thread-bearing." So in all of this confusion of names, "threadleaf," at least, should be easy to remember.

Chamaecyparis pisifera shrubs are grouped with the needled, coniferous evergreens, but they are not "evergreen" in the literal sense. "Evergreen," as botanists use the word, means having foliage that persists and retains its color throughout the year, rather than changing color according to the seasons.

But the term, "evergreen" can mislead the general public, as the color in question need not 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, not green. In the case of a cultivar such as Gold Mops false cypress, a golden foliage is kept year-round (as long as it gets enough sun).

Gold Mops and Other Cultivars on the Issues of Care, Color Retention

Shrubs in the threadleaf group generally want full sun (but only partial sun at the southern end of their range) and a fertile soil that drains well. Keep the ground evenly moist. You will probably have to water once a week in summer until the plants get comfortable in your planting bed. They have a slow growth rate. Pruning is easy: Simply prune on an as-needed basis (which will vary depending on how much space you have to grow the plant in, etc.).

Ohio State University Extension summarizes Gold Mops in the following way, contrasting it (on one point) with Dwarf Gold Thread ('Filifera Aurea Nana'). Gold Mops:

  1. Bears scaly leaves that keep their golden color if the shrub gets enough sun (by contrast, the color of Dwarf Gold Thread fades during the summertime, taking on more and more green).
  2. Has a semi-weeping form.
  3. Grows to be 5 feet tall by 7 feet wide.
  4. Can get winterburn in cold climates.

Another cultivar similar in size, shape, and foliage to both Gold Mops and Dwarf Gold Thread is Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera 'Sun Gold.' It does not keep its color quite as well through summer as does Gold Mops, but it does a better job than the latter of avoiding winterburn.

The threadleaf cultivar, Chamaecyparis pisifera 'King's Gold' has a mature size that sometimes fools people, who are often expecting a shorter plant. It can reach 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide in ten years (and eventually about twice that). If grown in full sun (in summer) the plant does retain its golden color pretty well through the summer. If it is situated such that it does not get full sun in winter (perhaps because a building blocks the sunlight during this season), that is actually a good thing.

It can help you avoid getting winterburn on the shrub.

With their fine texture, these threadleaf false cypress shrubs are great for giving your yard visual interest, and their golden foliage opens up some interesting options when developing landscape color schemes. For example, when you use deep red barberries as a companion plant to go along with the golden foliage of a false cypress, it creates an instant focal point.