Microbiota decussata, Russian Arborvitae

December 4, 2018

…But it must be that I,

that animal, that Russian, that exile, from whom

the bells of the chapel pullulate sounds at


-Wallace Stevens

Perhaps at Mount Auburn, thoughts from the above lines might recall Svetlana Boym, even though Stevens’ words are metaphorical. However, herein allow the transitional thoughts to rather delve into a plant native to Russia, Microbiota decussata, Russian Arborvitae growing within our landscape. Not unsurprisingly, the largest country in the world is native to numerous planting choices used here, Scilla siberica occurs only in the wild in southern Russia. Additionally, regardless of their somewhat confusing common names, Norway spruce, Dahurian larch, Korean pine, Manchurian birch, Manchurian maple, Manchurian walnut, Manchurian fir and Caucasian fir among others are Russians also represented in our living collection.

Microbiota decussata, Russian Arborvitae unlike the diverse genera mentioned above is a monotypic genus, that is a genus with only one species, Ginkgo and Metasequoia are other examples. Russian Arborvitae is native to a small region of Pacific Russia near Vladivostock, hence able to survive winter temperatures of minus 30 to minus 40 degrees. First recorded just under one-hundred years ago, it was not until the mid-1970’s that this began to be horticulturally distributed throughout Europe and later into North America.

This prostrate, evergreen shrub is only a bit over one-foot high, but may spread six-to-fifteen-feet wide at maturity. The flat, fine-textured, paired, scale-like leaves are pale green at first, but turn red-brown/bronze or purple-brown during the autumn and winter. Its branch tips are characteristically nodding, which might help distinguish it from cultivars of low-growing, spreading junipers.

This fairly fast-growing, graceful, cold-hardy, evergreen shrub will tolerate sun or shade and has received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1993, and the Worcester County Horticultural Society’s Cary Award in 1998. On a future visit to Mount Auburn look for some of our Russian Arborvitae on Central Avenue, Spruce Avenue, Walnut Avenue, Halcyon Avenue, Story Road, Spruce Knoll, and other locations.

 …Whispering like a garden of secrets.

-James Tate


About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →


  1. Susan Flint says:

    Hi Jim!
    I love this shrub! So happy you introduced it to me years ago! It is definitely one of my “go-tos’ for helping to control slope erosion in a sunny spot. I love the winter interest too! Are you still teaching at the Landscape Institute? I was thinking I really miss your classes and I’d like to take a tree id class, especially for the winter landscape.

  2. Rick DeAngelis says:

    Hi Jim – thanks for the fascinating and enjoyable article about Russian arborvitae. I very much enjoyed the literary allusions and photos. I have what I believe are American Arborvitae in my yard that are huge – maybe 30-40 feet.

    Will you be going to Cold River Camp in 2019 and what week are you hoping for? I was hoping to connect with you again.

    Rick from Cold River

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