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 homeowners.  I am especially impressed with the Chamaecyparis shrubs whose golden foliage beams so brightly in the landscape, particularly in the spring season (some do a good job of retaining this bright color during the summer; see 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, not even scientific plant names are exempt from criticism, as 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 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 are types of Chamaecyparis, including:

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.

From a linguistic standpoint, matters stand still worse with Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula', commonly known as the "weeping Alaskan cedar" (also known as "weeping Alaska-cedar" and "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 some more manageable 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 these shrub cultivars share is a scaly, 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 grouped botanically with the needled, coniferous evergreens, but they are not "evergreen" in the literal sense. "Evergreen," from the botanical perspective, 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 ring in the ear of the general public as something of a misnomer, 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 retained year-round (provided it gets enough sun).

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

Shrubs in the threadleaf group want a fertile soil that drains well and that is kept evenly moist. Pruning requirements are not stringent: simply prune on an as-needed basis (which will vary according to how much space you have allotted for the plant, etc.).

My Ohio State University Extension source 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 retain their golden color if the shrub is grown in full 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. Is susceptible to 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 reportedly does not retain its color quite as well through summer as does Gold Mops but does a better job than the latter of avoiding winterburn.

I, myself grow the threadleaf cultivar, Chamaecyparis pisifera 'King's Gold'. Its mature size is sometimes underestimated: it can reach 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide in 10 years (and eventually about twice that). I grow mine in full sun (in the summer), and the plant does retain its golden color pretty well through the summer. 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.