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Garden Talk

Close-up of dwarf tigertail spruce

Botanical name: Picea 'Howell's Dwarf'
Common name: Dwarf tigertail spruce
Family name: Pinaceae (Pine family)
Native range: Central Japan
Location in Duke Gardens: Doris Duke Center Gardens
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-7

By Katherine Hale

Marketing & Communications Assistant


In the opening lines of his famous poem “The Ballad of East and West,” Rudyard Kipling (author of the "Jungle Book" and "Just So" stories) claims that “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” He clearly never set foot in the East Meets West Garden, located between the Doris Duke Center Gardens and the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum. While the majority of the plants in this garden area hail from eastern Asia, they are arranged in a more formal Western style compatible with the landscaping around the Doris Duke Center, allowing the two distinct gardens to seamlessly merge into each other. In addition to the Yoshino cherry trees, Japanese roof irises and weeping rostrinucula, another particularly striking specimen anchoring this space is the dwarf tigertail spruce (Picea 'Howell's Dwarf').

Dwarf tigertail spruce has naturally bicolor needles—green on top and silver-blue below—and thus will appear different depending on your angle of view. This colorful effect is magnified by the reddish-purple cones, which start out rising upward like fir cones (Abies spp.) before gradually tilting downward and turning brown as they mature. Although this cultivar is much smaller than the wild type, curator Jason Holmes has ensured the tree will remain short and compact over time by removing the central leader. It will grow flat-topped and bushy instead of tall and pyramidal like a typical spruce.  

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of taxonomic confusion with regard to this cultivar, and it is sold in nurseries under a wide variety of names. Many refer to this species as P. bicolor, but P. alcoquiana is the oldest name on record, dating to an 1860 botanical expedition to Japan by the botanist John Gould Veitch, who found it growing on the slopes of Mount Fuji. It is also frequently confused with the related Yezo spruce (P. jezoensis). This cultivar may also be listed as 'Howell's Tigertail' or 'Howell's Dwarf Tigertail'.

Regardless of what you call it, ‘Howell’s Dwarf’ is a beautiful specimen tree worthy of a closer look at any time of year—and further proof that Kipling was wrong, and amazing things happen when East and West intersect.

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Photo: Close-up of 'Howell's Dwarf' tigertail spruce branches, photographed by Jessica Voss T'24.