How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Podocarpus
Are you looking for a low-maintenance shrub that makes an excellent noise or windscreen? Perhaps you're in the market for a sturdy privacy hedge. Podocarpus handles these tasks wonderfully. Here, gardening expert Melissa Strauss discusses how to grow and care for these coniferous shrubs.
Podocarpus is a coniferous shrub that makes an excellent accent in a large border. Unfussy and dense, they’re also perfect hedging plants!
This genus of attractive evergreen shrubs and trees likes warm weather and sunshine. While low-maintenance, these plants are slow to moderate growers. Choose from dwarf varieties around three feet tall all the way up to 40 foot trees!
Check out these care tips for growing beautiful Podocarpus in your landscape.
Podocarpus Plant Overview
Plant Type Woody Evergreen
Species About 100
Native Area South America, Asia, Africa
Exposure Full Sun to partial shade
Soil Rich, Sandy, Acidic, Well-Draining
Hardiness Zones 8-11
Height Up to 80’
Season Year Round
Pests Aphids, Spider Mites, Scale
Diseases Leaf Spot, Root Rot, Fusarium Wilt
Toxicity Toxic to pets
Podocarpus might not be the best choice if you are in a hurry. If you have the time to wait for them, these plants will reward you with an outstanding noise filter or privacy screen with their dense, sturdy foliage and limbs.
They are a large group of plants, so the full-sized species do not make a good low hedge, but there are dwarf varieties for this purpose. Podocarpus takes easily to shaping, so while they are typically grown as large hedges, they can also be encouraged into the form of a tree, and as such, some species can grow quite large.
This is not a showy plant and won’t be the main focus of many landscapes. However, it is easy to grow, requires little maintenance, and makes a very nice backdrop for other garden plants.
Podocarpus is a genus of conifers that is a member of the family Podocarpaceae. The family comprises 19 genera of conifers, mainly native to the Southern Hemisphere. This family’s species of plants are native to Australia, New Zealand, South America, Africa, and Asia, with Podocarpus being the furthest north-reaching genus.
Some of the more common names for the plant include Yellowwood and various combinations of the word pine. They are woody evergreens, and predominantly trees, although some varieties are smaller and shrubbier and make excellent hedges. They are mainly dioecious, with the male plants possessing pollen cones and the female plants developing seed cones.
They have attractive foliage with characteristics common to coniferous plants and are most similar to Yew plants. The foliage is quite dense, with leaves arranged in a spiral along branches. The leaves are flat and lanceolate with simple edges.
The leaves are leathery, and while they appear as though they might be very stiff, they are actually quite soft and easy to shear, so it is common to see this plant trimmed into a neat hedge. The foliage will be a deeper color if the plant is placed in partial shade and a lighter shade of green when it receives full sun.
Podocarpus can be grown from seeds or cuttings, with cuttings being the most common and desirable method for time purposes.
Propagating Podocarpus from seeds can be arduous, although it is typically successful. The greatest obstacle is the germination time of the seeds. It can take up to 6 months for seeds to germinate. Soaking the seeds in salt water for two days can drastically shorten germination.
Seeds need lower temperatures to germinate, and the range of 50°F is ideal, so germinating them in the refrigerator is usually adequate. After soaking, wrap the seeds in moist sphagnum and place them in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator. Your seed should have sprouted roots by this time and can be transplanted into a small container.
Plant seedlings in a well-draining potting mix and mist them often to keep them moist. The soil should not dry out while the seedlings are establishing roots. Place your seedlings in bright but indirect sunlight. The seedlings should be at least 6” tall before transplanting them.
Podocarpus is easily propagated by cuttings. As a result, this is the most common way to propagate these plants. The process is very simple and does not take nearly as long as growing them from seeds.
Take a cutting from soft, new wood. 3”-4” is all you need to carry out this process. Remove leaves from the bottom inch of your cutting, dip the end in rooting hormone, and place the cut end down into a small pot with soil that will remain moist, but the container should drain freely.
Maintain moisture in the soil, but don’t keep it soggy. In about 4 months, your cutting should have roots and can be transplanted.
When selecting a spot for your Podocarpus, account for its mature size. Some varieties are smaller and can be used as low hedges, but for the most part, these plants need space to grow. It is best to plant in spring or fall, as this plant needs moisture to establish before the summer heat or dry winter weather sets in.
When planting your Podocarpus, you should dig a hole two to three times the size of the root ball and not much deeper. The wider the hole, the better chance your plant has of rooting and establishing quickly. Depending on your soil type, it may be helpful to amend your soil before backfilling.
When placing your plant in the hole, loosen some feeder roots that can get cramped in the nursery pot. Keep the root ball at or just slightly above the surrounding ground. This will make allowance for settling. Backfill with your amended soil and build a berm around the trunk at about 3” tall, this will help direct water downward.
Water deeply after planting. You want the water to soak through to the root ball. For better rooting, you can water your plant with water mixed with a bit of rooting hormone to encourage rooting. Because Podocarpus likes moisture, it’s a good idea to cover the surrounding earth with a generous layer of mulch.
How to Grow Podocarpus
This is a pleasantly low-maintenance shrub that has many uses in the landscape. If given the right conditions, your Podocarpus will, in its slow and steady manner, become a valued part of your landscape.
Plant Podocarpus plants 3’-6’’ apart if you desire a formal hedge. If planting a sole specimen, give it enough space to spread based on the variety. In general, the spread of a mature shrub is 6’-15’ wide.
Dwarf varieties of Podocarpus make very nice container plants. If you live in any cooler zone than zone 8, this is the only way to grow one of these shrubs, as it will have to come indoors in the winter. A large container or root bag is a great way to keep Podocarpus as a container plant in cooler climates.
The most important factor in choosing a container is that it must have very good drainage. While Podocarpus likes consistent moisture, it doesn’t tolerate soggy roots, which can create a vulnerability to certain kinds of soil-dwelling fungi that cause root rot. Ensure that your container has proper drainage and is slightly larger than the root ball of your plant.
Podocarpus is not particular about light. It can grow perfectly fine in full sun or nearly complete shade. It will have different growth habits depending on the amount of sun, so consider sun exposure when deciding on your plant’s location.
Podocarpus won’t suffer in the shade but will grow more slowly. In addition, the foliage will be a deeper shade of green depending on the amount of shade.
Podocarpus grows fastest in full sun, but this will also result in lighter-colored foliage. A balance of sun and shade may be desirable for those who wish to maintain some of the deep green color of the leaves and see more significant growth.
Soil is another area where Podocarpus is flexible and unfussy. The ideal soil type for this shrub is sandy or loamy soil that holds moisture but also has excellent drainage. Podocarpus doesn’t like to dry out completely but doesn’t tolerate soggy roots. Very clay-heavy soil may need to be amended with looser, organic material such as worm castings.
Rich and slightly acidic are two qualities that this plant will appreciate. Mulching with seasoned pine or bark will keep this plant very happy. Over time, the mulch breaks down, acidifying and adding nutrients to the soil.
For the first year, Podocarpus will be slightly more high maintenance where watering is concerned. The roots need moisture while the plant is getting established, so planting in spring or fall will give your plant the best start.
During the first year, you should expect to water your Podocarpus once every two weeks. Make sure to water deeply. Watering deeply encourages the roots to grow deeper, anchors the plant firmly, and helps it tolerate drought in the future. After the plant is established, you’re unlikely to need to water it except in extreme drought.
Climate and Temperature
Podocarpus plants love mild climates, which makes them good houseplants. Their size needs to be managed indoors, but this plant is happiest at temperatures between 61-68°, and who can blame it? That’s what I prefer as well! If kept inside, this plant needs a space with plenty of sunlight. They don’t require a particularly humid environment.
Some species have better cold tolerance than others, but Podocarpus plants generally survive temperatures in the low 20s or high teens. They are very tolerant of heat and salt, making a perfect coastal hedge.
These plants are quite good at utilizing the nutrients in the soil. As long as the pH of the soil is slightly acidic, there isn’t much reason to fertilize Podocarpus. That said, some of us just need to fertilize things. I love a good, healthy growth year in my yard. If you want to fertilize your Podocarpus, do so lightly and in the spring.
If your soil is rich enough, this once-yearly fertilizing should suffice. If you have particularly sandy or poor soil, feel free to give a second application during the summer. Fertilizing in the fall is not recommended.
Maintenance and Care
In its first year, there is a strong possibility that your plant may grow straight upwards, which is great if you want a tree, but most gardeners love Podocarpus for what a great shrub it makes. Pruning your plant back hard at the end of the first summer will encourage back budding, which leads to branching. Make sure not to prune within two months of the first expected frost.
Podocarpus is very tolerant of shaping and hard pruning. It is best not to prune late in the year if your climate experiences freezing weather. Otherwise, pruning is fine year-round. A long-reach pruner is probably necessary because this plant can grow quite large.
There are a number of different varieties you can grow, depending on your local microclimate. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular.
|botanical name Podocarpus macrophyllus|
|sun requirements Partial shade|
|height up to 40’|
|hardiness zones 8-11|
Buddhist Pine, also called Japanese Yew, is famous for its use as a feng shui plant in Hong Kong. It is native to Japan and China, where it is a popular plant and frequently boasts a hefty price tag.
This variety is a common bonsai tree with a beautiful growth habit and structure for indoor and outdoor use.
County Park Fire
|botanical name Podocarpus x ‘County Park Fire’|
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade|
|hardiness zones 8-11|
‘County Park Fire’ is an interesting cultivar prized for its wonderful color-changing foliage. This hybrid is small but mighty, given the Royal Botanic Garden’s Award of Garden Merit.
The new growth in spring is a coral color, which lasts into the summer. As fall approaches and the weather cools, the foliage takes on a bronze hue and deepens further in winter to a dark red.
|botanical name Podocarpus elatus|
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade|
|hardiness zones 9-11|
This Australian native is a conifer, but it doesn’t produce cones. Rather, it produces edible seeds beloved by birds. Humans can make jam with them, too!
This is a slow-growing species initially, but the growth picks up after a few years. ‘Plum Pine’s’ ultimate height can reach up to 40’ or taller. In their native habitat, they grow over 100’ tall!
|botanical name Podocarpus gracilor|
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade|
|hardiness zones 9-11|
This lovely species looks like a fluffy, green cloud when it matures. The lightly drooping branches of finely textured foliage make it a wonderful landscape specimen.
Weeping Podocarpus grows as a shrub with low ground clearance but is easily trained into the shape of a tree. It’s a nice mid-sized tree that provides ample shade for your outdoor living space.
Pests and Diseases
Sadly, there are some pests and diseases that affect Podocarpus shrubs. Most of them are manageable and shouldn’t result in the death of the plant.
The most concerning pest that affects Podocarpus is the one named for its host, the Podocarpus aphid. These small, pale purple insects will live out their entire lifecycle on the same plant and exclusively feed on coniferous plants. A large infestation will result in curling leaves and stunted growth.
In addition to depleting the plant of nutrients, these insects leave behind a sticky excrement called honeydew. This creates the perfect environment for sooty mold to grow, which can interfere with photosynthesis.
Treat with insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils only if the aphid infestation is causing damage to the plant. A light infestation typically won’t affect the health of the plant and is best controlled by beneficial predators.
Spider mites are another group of sap-sucking insects that may reside on your Podocarpus plant. These tiny mites are difficult to see, so look for the fine webs they weave on the underside of leaves.
To eradicate spider mites, treat them similarly to aphids. They like hot, dry weather and will often show up where their natural predators have been destroyed with pesticides.
Scale insects are similar to aphids in the type of damage that they inflict. These small, armored insects pierce the leaves and feed on the tree’s sweet sap, leaving their sicky excrement behind. Scale has a hard, waxy coating that horticultural oil is best for breaking down.
Several fungal pathogens can cause leaf spot infections. This may appear as brown or yellow spotting on leaves.
Treat them by removing affected foliage and using a fungicide indicated for leaf spot diseases. Typically, copper or sulfur-based fungicides are the most common.
A fungal infection causes root rot, and its development is nearly always the result of overwatering or poor drainage. Podocarpus need infrequent watering and good drainage.
If your Podocarpus develops root rot due to poor drainage, you can amend the soil or move it to a new spot with better drainage. If overwatering is the culprit, revise your watering schedule and allow the soil to nearly dry out between waterings.
This fungal disease attacks the plant’s roots and affects nutrient uptake. This causes leaves to turn yellow and brown and also causes wilting and die-off.
Control of your water schedule is imperative to reduce the fungal spread. Once this disease has spread, it’s best to remove and dispose of the plant away from other plants, then avoid planting susceptible species in the same spot for a few years.
Another fungal disease, Botrytis blight, typically affects the leaves and causes wilting, decay, and brown leaves. The best course of action is to remove all affected foliage and thin out branches to allow for better air circulation to the plant’s interior.
Podocarpus is not a flashy plant. While it won’t make anyone stop and stare, it can serve some important purposes. For use as a noise barrier or privacy screen, Podocarpus is nearly unrivaled. The easy-to-maintain, dense foliage creates an effective barrier between properties or camouflage for unsightly areas.