A Disappointing ‘Surprise’

Gardening holds so many surprises; some pleasant, and some…not so. Some are open to interpretation, such as the discovery of ‘volunteer’ plants that may or may not be welcome (a hint to Toxicodendron radicans: you’re not.) And sometimes the initial evaluation changes over time, such as the cute little 8-inch-tall volunteer conifer I discovered at the west end of the driveway bed in…2016, I think it was.

The arrow points to what that cute little volunteer conifer looks like now; the back of my car provides scale.  I have no idea what it is (chamaecyparis, maybe) or how big it will eventually get. That looming question is morbidly fascinating.

But that’s not the surprise I am writing about. The subject of today’s post is Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Blue Surprise’ which is described in most literature as

a dense, upright, narrowly conical selection of Lawson cypress with striking, steel-blue juvenile foliage on reddish stems. In colder parts of the world, foliage will assume more of a purple cast in winter. After 10 years of growth, a mature specimen will measure 6 feet (2 m) tall and 2 feet (60 cm) wide, an annual rate of growth of 6 to 8 inches.

My son and I both wanted one of these, and put in an order for two from Singing Tree Gardens last summer. They were a 2-gallon pot size, $75 each, and we paid extra to have them shipped the fastest way across country from the West to East coast.

Although our gardens are only about 15 miles apart, our growing conditions are very different. The only thing the two shrubs would have in common was that they’d both be growing in full sun!

The soil at my son’s garden is that wonderful, diggable loam that I used to have when I lived in that area, and now miss so desperately. He has a programmed, in-ground irrigation system. Because their house is a stone’s throw from the bay, they have four weather conditions: Windy, Gusty, Tie Everything Down, and The Power Just Went Out. There’s also salt spray to contend with.

Here at the Money Pit, it often seems that what my soil grows best are pebbles, stones, and rocks. There is an unending supply of these; the Flintstones would feel right at home. The soil is clay, either gray or orange depending on where you dig and how deep. The irrigation system is me with a watering can or hose. On many summer days, the lack of a decent breeze makes the humidity seem even more oppressive. So, the Blue Surprise “twins” would be dealing with radically different conditions, neither of which are anything like the Pacific Northwest from whence they came. Which plant would fare better?

I should mention here that, being aware of the issue that Lawson’s cypress has with susceptibility to root fungus, plants that were grafted onto a disease-resistant rootstock were a must. ‘Blue Surprise’ is supposedly one of those cultivars.

Both plants went into the ground on July 4th weekend in 2020 and looked great for a couple of months, until my son’s plant started showing dieback. It was dead in less than three weeks; never even made it until the winter!

This is my ‘Blue Surprise’ after planting on July 3, 2020.

On September 9th it was still looking good! It subsequently came through that winter unscathed despite being more than 75% buried from January-March under a couple feet of slow-melting snow.

This photo was taken on July 24, 2021. I must confess to more than a few twinges of plant-survivors-guilt when my son visited during the spring and early summer and saw how well my ‘Blue Surprise’ was doing.

Until suddenly – and I do mean suddenly – I saw this on August 9, 2021. This photo was taken at 1:46 pm.

At 4:09 pm the following day (August 10th) it looked like this. I have never seen a shrub die this fast in my life, and I have killed a few in my time! In the immortal words of Dr. Leonard McCoy: “It’s dead, Jim.”

Having no desire to watch the poor shrub’s final throes from my kitchen window, by 4:13 pm the bed looked like this:
and I just hope the lawn-waste pickup happens sooner rather than later, so that I don’t have to see the corpse every time I back out of the driveway. My conifer-guru friend Don offered this postmortem diagnosis: “Too hot too humid and too dry followed by overwatering.” Which exactly describes the weather we have had for the past two weeks; the overwatering having been provided by Mother Nature starting late on the 8th. But really……!!!

But was this really such a surprise? I decided to google “blue surprise died suddenly” and among the results are:

This cultivar is notorious for sudden death due to Phytophthera lateralis, a fungal pathogen that attacks the roots. I’ve honestly not heard of one surviving to 6-feet tall, let alone 9-feet tall.

If it were to come down with Phytophthera, you’d know it pretty quick. One day the vibrant color would be muted, and 3 days later, the entire tree will be reddish brown and quite dead. It happens that fast.

But I thought this cultivar, advertised as being on “resistant” rootstocks, was protected? Apparently not, because

The “surprise” part of ‘Blue Surprise’ is that it survives at all. For some reason, this is a particularly problematic cultivar of Lawson cypress and was responsible for the majority of failed conifer returns at my previous nursery.


At a trade-oriented seminar on new introductions held at the Center for Urban Horticulture, Seattle L. Stanley showed a slide of C. lawsoniana ‘Blue Surprise’ and quipped “The ‘Surprise’ is when it dies.”  I prefer to call it ‘Bad Surprise’.

Would I have bought or recommended ‘Blue Surprise’ if I’d been aware of this before? For myself, maybe (because we all like to think that we’ll be successful with a plant despite other gardeners failing!). Not being a total glutton for punishment, I am so done with ‘Blue Bad Surprise’ forever! But what to put in its place?

The only blue conifer I’d trust in my clay soil would be Picea pungens, and there are two mature specimens here already, plus two ‘Blue Totem’ and four ‘Montgomery’ that I planted last year and this. Those would either get too tall (Totem) or too wide (Monty) for this particular space. But my color plan for this bed was blue-and-yellow, so what should be my “blue anchor” on that end? And I want a true blue (you know, as in ‘blue-conifer blue’)  not purple-blue, in this bed. And it would need to be about 5 or 6 feet tall, to be a structural balance to the yellow cotinus and also not get swamped by the yellow daylilies.

Suddenly I had the answer: Not entirely a plant at all, but this:

And this, to grow up it:

Tweedia caerulea (formerly Oxypetalum caeruleum) is an incredible shade of blue rarely found in flowers. It is not hardy here, which means I’ll need to start it from seed early next spring and perhaps try overwintering it in the frost-free basement. I grew it once, about a dozen years ago, and the flowers really are this color.

It’s an ungainly, somewhat weedy-looking, plant and does not actually climb which means I’ll have to fasten the stems to the obelisk. Because it’s a milkweed, the butterflies should love it. But the flowers…!!!

Using the obelisk also means that I can experiment with different climbers from year to year. Normally I’m strictly a perennials/shrubs/trees gal, but considering the challenge of this bed in both color and form, I’ll make an exception. For example, I won’t grow the regular (invasive by seed) purpurea morning glory but I love the almost-sterile Japanese ones (Ipomea nil.)

For example, wouldn’t ‘Keiru Mountain Stream’ look fabulous in this bed?!

And who knows? I might even put Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ around the base of the obelisk – even though I know from experience how short-lived it can be. At least, when it peters out, it won’t be…a surprise!

  5 comments for “A Disappointing ‘Surprise’

  1. August 11, 2021 at 10:47 am

    Oh my! I’ve heard of sudden plant death but that really takes the prize! Wow!

    And here I was lamenting my failure–again–with tomatoes this year–for exactly the same reasons, of course.


  2. August 11, 2021 at 3:30 pm

    That is a plant to be avoided, it seems. I love the description of your son’s gardening/weather conditions–too funny!

  3. August 11, 2021 at 11:07 pm

    I cringed when a browning cypress scrolled up just after you said how well yours was growing. So sad to see, and frustrating as well! I do like the tweedia though. I’m fighting a sudden urge to grow one now, thanks 😉
    Is your volunteer conifer a J. virginiana? They’re always showing up here and there, but I feel like you would have recognized that. I have one that has suddenly become too large to ignore anymore. I am such a sucker for volunteer evergreens though, and I can’t imagine shovel pruning it.

    • August 19, 2021 at 2:03 pm

      Duh..you are right, it’s a male J. virginiana. There is a female one at the other end of the driveway that has gotten huge after the overhanging oak was cut down several years ago. The other day I began snipping away at the male/volunteer and after a while…well, there’ll be a new post soon showing what that led to, LOL! (Junipers are my least favorite conifer and so you would think I would recognize them in all their forms simply in order to evict them, but I think I have a mental ‘recognizability’ block sometimes!)

  4. August 15, 2021 at 1:48 pm

    Such a shame. For some reason one of my aromatic asters is browning out – I think this hot summer has been too much for it. I like those Tweedia flowers!

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