Microbiota Decussata: Shrubby, Low-Growing Ground Cover

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Looking for an alternative ground cover that’s reminiscent of juniper? Siberian cypress, botanically known as Microbiota decussata, is great. This evergreen, low-growing shrub has a wealth of garden uses.

Unlike junipers, it’s a bit more shade-tolerant. Its mid-green leaves turn a coppery bronze in the fall, adding to its appeal. Spreading with ease, it will gradually fill in an area with lush color.

Though it was found in 1923, the world didn’t discover the plant until nearly fifty years later. Since then, it’s become beloved for its feathery foliage and good looks. You’ll love it, too!

So let’s settle in and discuss this short little shrub and how best to incorporate it into your garden.

Good Products For Growing Russian Cypress:

Siberian Cypress Overview

Microbiota decussata
Microbiota decussata is a shrubby plant which works beautifully as ground cover. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Common Name(s): Siberian cypress, Russian cypress, Russian arborvitae
Scientific NameMicrobiota decussata
Family:Cupressaceae
Zone:Zones 3-7 optimal
Height & Spread:8″-12″ tall, with a spread ranging from 6′-12′
LightPartial shade preferred.
SoilMoist but well-draining, tolerates poor soils
Water:1x weekly, more frequently in hot weather
Pests & Diseases:No common pests or diseases.

All About Russian Cypress

A shrub of microbiota decussata is a nice touch in the yard
A shrub of microbiota decussata is a nice touch in the yard. source

In the spring, this plant’s foliage is bright, vivid green. As the seasons shift, it becomes dark green in summer, then gradually turns to a bronze hue for the fall. It remains this color until the spring returns, and then undergoes a dramatic shift back to green.

Mountainous portions of southeastern Siberia are where it originated. Because of political secrecy, the USSR did not share it with the rest of the world… at least for a while. Nearly fifty years after it was first named, it was revealed to the world at large.

Its foliage has a feathery shape. Each leaf is comprised of many overlapping scale-like bits, giving it texture. These join together at the stem to create a fan or feather-like spray. Where juniper tips tend to curve up towards the sun, these gracefully bend downward.

While it does flower, its flowers are ornamentally insignificant. From the spent flowers it forms its fruit. These are tiny spherical cones, each one covered in woody scales. They look like a brown berry from a distance, but the cone layering is visible up close.

It’s considered an evergreen conifer, as it does not shed leaves in the fall. As it grows, newer growth appears overtop of the older stems, overlapping old growth. Usually, it stays at a height of 8″-12″, but can spread anywhere from 6′-12′ in diameter.

Often, this plant is used on hillsides for erosion control. It makes an excellent lawn replacement. When combined with other evergreen plants, it can be quite striking. This is especially true in its fall coloration, as its dark bronze stands out from greener plants.

Siberian Cypress Plant Care

Odd, fern-like appearance to this plant
Odd, fern-like appearance to this plant. source

Conifers tend to be pretty self-reliant, needing little aid from humans. The Russian arborvitae is no different in this regard! Let’s talk about setting up your Siberian cypress for success. With the right start, it will provide living color for you for years to come.

Light

While creeping juniper prefers full sun conditions, your Siberian cypress enjoys partial shade. In fact, that’s where it grows best. While it can tolerate full sun conditions in milder climates, it’s easiest to plan for some cover. It can grow in full shade, but performs best if it gets at least a little sunlight.

Zones 3-7 are where it grows best. It’s been known to survive in limited plantings in zones 8 and 9, but must be fully-shaded. It’s very cold-hardy, making it perfect in areas with chilly winters.

Water

Your plant will enjoy consistent moisture, but it doesn’t like standing water. Keep the soil evenly damp, but not soggy.

Once established, the Russian arborvitae is very drought-tolerant. Its roots can pull moisture from deep down.

I prefer a slow, gradual irrigation method for this plant. Installing soaker hoses beneath your plants when they’re young is best. This allows the moisture to ooze into the soil and thoroughly permeate. Water only when the soil is dry at the surface, but do a long, slow watering to soak the soil to 6″ down.

If your climate is humid, be sure that your plant has some shade during the hottest parts of the day. The combination of humidity and heat can slow down its growth. Night humidity isn’t a concern.

Soil

Russian arborvitae
Sometimes called Russian arborvitae, it turns a deep green in the summer. Source: Derek Ramsey

Moist and well-drained soils provide the best growth for your Russian cypress. These plants can tolerate poor soils, as well as dry and thin ones, but they will grow quickly in loams.

When possible, provide a rapidly-decomposing mulch like mulched dry leaves around new plantings. This helps to keep the soil moist and protects it from erosion. Once the plant has established itself and expanded in size, it will act as a living mulch.

In winter, a wood chip mulch will protect the plant’s roots from cold damage.

Fertilizer

If you plan on fertilizing, it’s best done in the early spring before new growth appears. Use a balanced, slow-release fertilizer, preferably a granular form. These are easy to spread around the base of your plants.

Don’t feel as if it’s a necessity, though. Your Russian arborvitae is quite tolerant of poor soil nutrition. It’ll survive even without fertilization. If your soil’s fairly rich, you can skip it with no problem.

Propagation

Propagation for this plant is mostly done via stem cuttings. To take a cutting, select a healthy stem and cut it with sterilized shears. Rooting hormone can help speed root development. Keep the cutting in moistened potting soil until it develops roots. Humidity around the young cutting can help keep it vigorous.

Seeds also form in the plant’s cones, but these are slightly less reliable. When the tiny cones begin to open, you can shake the seeds free into a paper bag. Plant seeds shallowly and keep the soil moist until a young plant has developed. A greenhouse cover and a seedling warming mat are useful for germination.

Pruning

Prune in the early spring, focusing on the tips of branches. Be sure to prune before the plant begins to green up again. This annual pruning encourages bushier growth habits.

You may also prune to ensure it remains in its intended growing area at any time. When pruning, be sure to use clean pruning shears to make a clean cut. Don’t use a weed whacker or edger, as this can cause potential damage to the rest of the stem.

Problems

Siberian cypress turning green in spring
In the fall, Siberian cypress turns bronze. As spring approaches, it greens again. Source: Daderot

You might be surprised at just how care-free growing microbiota decussata will be. It handles most of its own needs, with only minimal care from you.

But what of problems you might encounter? Let’s talk about those.

Growing Problems

Overwatering is likely the riskiest situation for your plant. It just can’t tolerate standing water. The plant’s roots will suffer if you overwater, and it can cause major problems

Hot climates can be very, very tricky for microbiota decussata. While it is possible to grow it in zones 8 or 9, it really needs to be in full shade. The heat of direct sunlight in those warmer regions can be deadly to the plant. Generally, it prefers cooler regions.

Don’t panic when your plant starts to turn bronze in the winter! It’s a normal progression. It will green right back up in the spring again. Mulch around the plant’s base with wood chips to keep the roots insulated from cold.

Pests

Unlike many other ground covers, Siberian cypress is essentially pest-free. At most, deer may nibble on exposed foliage for food during a snowy winter. It’s not their preferred food, and they’ll choose alternatives whenever possible.

While pests don’t attack the plant, it can house pests. Mice may be discovered living in burrows under this and other ground cover plants. Some spiders find it to be a good home, too.

Diseases

Like pests, diseases don’t typically strike your microbiota plant. It’s immune to many types of plant disease.

Damaged roots may rarely be susceptible to bacterial or fungal root rots. Similarly, damage to the base of the plant may leave it open to bacterial infection. But it’s pretty unlikely as a whole.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Are there different varieties of Siberian cypress that can be grown?

A. To date, there aren’t cultivars in development, just the main species. This ground cover plant is fantastic on its own!

Q. I live in an area with cold winters and strong winds. Is it okay to grow Russian cypress here?

A.Russian cypress can survive colder weather as well as strong windy conditions. It overwinters well under a blanket of snow.

Q: Is microbiota decussata safe around my pets?

A: The ASPCA does not currently list this plant as a hazardous plant. If your animal eats a large quantity of the foliage, you may want to check with your vet. Your pet may be suffering from some gastric upset and may be trying to induce vomiting. Most dogs and cats will have little interest in it, though!


This shrublike ground cover plant is a phenomenal addition to a landscape. Whether you’re using it for erosion control, as a lawn replacement, or just for its foliage, it’s great! If you’re in a cooler climate, you’ll find Siberian cypress to be a great addition for you.


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Kevin Espiritu
Founder

Lorin Nielsen
Lifetime Gardener

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