I'm decorating for Christmas and realize that all I have is this holly or that holly and boxwood; all pretty, but I want something that makes me think of cold weather and snow. Are there any plants that will give me that feeling but can take our heat?
Get out your muffler and mittens; I've got several great plants for you.
First is the Chamaecyparis genus, yet another group of plants native to both Japan and Taiwan and the United States. Actually members of the family Cupressacaea, for some confusing reason the common name for these evergreens is falsecypress. (Our bald cypress, oddly enough, isn't a member of that family; it falls under Taxodiaceae.) For the garden you want cultivars of the Asian species C. obtusa or C. pisifera, which are hardy from zones 4-8.
I grow two of the C. obtusa cultivars called Hinoki falsecypress. I long since lost the tags but believe they are 'Filicoides' and 'Gracilils.' The Hinokis tend to have loose, almost flattened, scale-like growth; the twigs branch frequently and lend themselves to pruning as long as you don't cut back into the very woody growth. If I ever give them the chance, they should get to be about 15 to 20 feet tall and maybe 5 feet across.
We recently had a wreath-making workshop in Sumter and the 60 pieces of Hinoki cypress I brought almost caused a fight; everyone wanted to use some. They last remarkably well out of water.
Grow these conifers in full sun, and although they require good drainage, they need watering in dry times. Otherwise the interior scales will turn brown and hang on the branch, looking pretty ratty.
My TV buddy, extension agent Tony Melton, is fond of and grows the "mops." Certain C. pisifera, or Sawara falsecypress, cultivars tend to be lower growing and spreading. Many of these come in Technicolor - 'Sungold,' 'Aurea,' or 'Lemon Thread" - and make quite a focal point. They generally lose their color if not in full sun and in colder areas can get winter burn. (None of the falsecypress tolerate dry winds.)
If you start looking into this genus, you'll find hundreds of cultivars listed. The falsecypress seeds (from small cones) are famous for giving rise to mutations which nurserymen are quick to select, name, and put in the trade. If you want to grow some of these plants, go to a good local nursery and read (and save!) the tag so you won't be surprised by the ultimate size, be it large or a dwarf.
How about something blue? Cupressus arizonica 'Carolina Sapphire' is often grown on Christmas tree farms for its soft, scale-like leaves, its glaucous color, and a dynamite smell - if they could put Eau de Christmas in a bottle, this is what it would be. Once established this tree is drought tolerant and it grows quickly, up to a foot and a half a year, until it reaches 50 feet or so - I now have to climb a ladder to clip mine.
Unlike the Chamaecyparis individuals, Carolina Sapphire's foliage doesn't appear flat; it has a fluffier look, and though its color is somewhat icy, this plant requires warm weather, growing only in zones 7-9. When cut, it lasts well in arrangements or wreaths and doesn't fall to pieces like our old holiday standby, Eastern Red Cedar.