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Plant Profiles

Carsten's Wintergold mugo pine



This dwarf mugo pine waits for cold weather to put on a show: the needles are blah green in Summer but bright yellow all Winter.  And the colder the temperature, the brighter the color.  Finally, the plant that makes you wish it will go below zero. 


'Carsten's Wintergold' is dwarf as well as slow.  And it's so hardy that you can grow it in a container year-round.  I have a pair of them, each in its own pot, so I can easily move them to a prominent spot for the Winter.




This season I let a nearby oakleaf hydrangea grow too big; one or two of its mammoth leaves could smother the entire pine.




But what a great combination for the Fall!  See "Plant partners" below for color combos that last all Winter.



Here's how to grow this exceptional pine:

Latin Name

Pinus mugo 'Carsten's Wintergold'

Common Name

'Carsten's Wintergold' mugo pine


Pinaceae, the Pine family.

What kind of plant is it?

Dwarf evergreen coniferous shrub.


Zones 3 - 7.


Clumping, dense, multi-stemmed, irregular; wider than tall.

Rate of Growth

Very slow. 

Size in ten years

Just over a foot tall, and a bit more than a foot wide. 


Dense and rigid.  Dwarf mugo pines are all, more or less, essays in "buns-manship:" Full to the ground, with many stems pointing up; over time the growth is so dense that needles of one stem poke into the needles of its neighboring stems.

Grown for

its foliage. In warm weather, 'Carsten's Wintergold' goes undercover as yet another boring dwarf mugo pine.  In cool weather, the shrub's needles switch to a deep as well as bright yellow, with occasional hints of orange.  The look is as striking as it is disturbing; the shrub can look artificial if it's not sited with intentional prominence.


its habit.  'Carsten's Wintergold' is broad and dense; it would be hard to imagine it ever growing out of bounds.       


its toughness.  Mugo pines are a hardy lot.  Some sources say Zone 2, which means they can survive Winter temperatures of fifty degrees below zero Fahrenheit.  But the usual hardiness rating is Zone 3, which is still a sub-Arctic minus forty.  The pines also tolerate drought as well as high pH soils.  And they crave full sun, too.  If you've got the need for evergreens that will smile at the most unsparing cold and exposure, mugo pines will become one of your close friends.

Flowering season

Spring, but neither the flowers nor the brown cones they mature to are particularly showy. 

Color combinations

The mid-green of 'Carsten's Wintergold' in Summer goes with everything.  The school-bus yellow of the shrub in Winter is so strong that the shrub needs special handling if it's not to look like a tedious stunt.  Evergreen foliage that keeps a good quality green is the safest choice, but neighbor plants that bring burgundy, yellow, or even red to the Winter landscape could also be effective.  But they could also be more than an eyeful.  It's all in the details; see 'Partner plants' and 'How to handle it' below.

Partner Plants

Large foliage, evergreen or deciduous, is always congenial with conifers, all the more so if it's in a contrasting color.  If you're more careful than I was to control the growth of a nearby oakleaf hydrangea—which could quickly shade the mugo out—its huge foliage stays burgundy in Fall while the pine switches from green to bright yellow.  Jazzy, indeed. 


Given mugo pines' requirement for full sun and excellent drainage, it's easiest to choose partner plants with the same interests.  'Color Guard' yucca is only hardy through Zone 6, but that's Wintery enough for a mugo; its yellow-striped leaves are every bit the shameless self-promoters as the needles of 'Carsten's Wintergold'.  It tolerates any degree of drought or alkaline soil. 


Some small-leaved rhododendrons are native to near-alpine habitats, so could partner well with 'Carsten's Wintergold', both in size and in hardiness.  They need moisture-retentive and acid soil, which the pine will also grow in provided drainage is still good.


To my eye, blue-needled conifers growing by yellow-needled conifers are too interesting by half.  And both are conifers, so their foliage texture is repetitious regardless of color. 


Oakleaf hydrangeas can provide burgundy foliage in the Fall, but for interest all Winter long choose an evergreen species whose foliage changes color in the cold: Photinia davidii 'Prostrata', say, or Euonymus fortunei 'Coloratus'.  The foliage of both turns burgundy for the entire cold season, but even if it just stayed green, it would still provide excellent textural contrast.


Be careful that any partner plants don't get so large that they block the hot South and West sun that mugo pines all love.  Plant taller things only to the East or North.  In addition, E. fortunei 'Coloratus' is a groundcovering shrub that's also happy to become a vine; don't let it crawl up into the mugo.  

Where to use it in your garden

'Carsten's Wintergold' is so showy in Winter—but so boring in Summer—that siting it can be a puzzle.  Anything less than prominent and even focal siting would cause the glaringly-bright pine to pull your garden's focus out of focus all Winter.  But that same focus is wasted on the pine in the Summer, when the shrub is helplessly nondescript.  Plus, mugo pines demand full sun year-round, so you can't hide them with other larger plants that are excitingly focal in warm weather, nor ornament them with anything that would scramble through them and provide floral interest when the pine's needles are green.  No clematis, no roses.  


One solution is to plant 'Carsten's Wintergold' in a prominent spot among other similarly-sized beauties, so that, year-round, something or other is having its prime moment in roughly the same space.  This could be in a naturalistic rock-garden or, because the pine's growth is dense as well as fairly regular, in a more geometric format.  Could 'Carsten's Wintergold' be at each corner of a small knot garden?  Could a group of containers be planted with the mugos, and then spaced regularly along a walkway or along the sunny and windy side of a terrace?


Another option for containered specimens of 'Carsten's Wintergold' is to move them into prominence only in the Winter.  As long as their off-season location still affords them full sun there's more flexibility in their cold-weather location, when the shrubs are "meditating" but not actually growing.  The pines never grow so large that their containers would become intractable, either. 


Full sun and almost any soil as long as the drainage is excellent.  Mugo pines are plants for exposed sites; to a mugo, "blinding sun and howling Arctic winds" is ad copy for a highly-desirable neighborhood.

How to handle it:  The Basics

'Carsten's Wintergold' establishes easily; mugo pines don't have tap roots, so they can be raised in nursery pots as well as transplanted.  The shrubs are so hardy that Fall planting would be possible, too, not just Spring.  But it's safest to plant in Spring and ensure that there's adequate water to get the pine established its first season.  Unless they're growing in containers, mugos typically don't need supplemental irrigation thereafter.  

Because 'Carsten's Wintergold' grows best with full sun, it shouldn't be crowded at any side, especially by plants to the South or West that are tall enough to cast any shade.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Any species that's hardy to Zone 3—let alone one such as a mugo pine, which also requires full sun and great drainage—is a prime candidate for growing in containers.  The shrubs are long-lived, so the challenge is providing a container that is itself "hardy" enough to last through Summer and Winter in the rugged and fully-exposed sites that the pines crave.


Well-built wood planters are the most practical; use as heavy and "over-engineered" ones as you can afford.  If you've inherited or can afford a lead planter, that would be the fantasy: They're immortal—but also cruelly heavy.


Best of all would be galvanized metal containers that you can slip inside an ornamental wood cachepot.  As long as the metal container doesn't touch the sides of the cachepot, the cachepot is saved from the damaging Winter pressure of frozen soil, which is a bit bulker than unfrozen.  And "galvanized metal containers" can be nothing more than a bucket or washpan: as light as any planter made of metal can be.  Drill plenty of drainage holes in the bottom; drainage is always paramount with mugo pines.  So what if the containers rust out every five or ten years.  They're economical to replace, and their sloping sides make transplanting easy.


Mugo pines growing in containers will need occasional watering during warm weather; the shrubs are drought-tolerant but they're not cacti.

Quirks or special cases



Mugo pines are not conifers for exceptionally hot-and-muggy climates; if you're gardening South of Philadelphia, choose conifers that are comfortable with high night-time temperatures, such as junipers and pines native to hotter regions.  


Pinus mugo is always on the move, spontaeously producing new forms that exceed market demand, or at least the ability of nurserymen to identify, propagate, and market them.  Pinus mugo is so naturally variable that exciting new forms are also "produced" just by observation—by identifying them in the wild—or by noticing which individuals in a mass-production nursery are, at least in comparison to their "litter mates," different enough to be worth singling out.


The most appealing traits to look for include greater degrees of dwarfness and density overall; 'Mini Mini' is so dense and slow-growing that, even after a decade, it still isn't larger than a foot tall or wide.  Some cultivars can be both dwarf as well as narrow and upright; in a decade, 'Lew Hill Upright' is only about two feet tall and one foot wide.  Prostrate growth is another option; it's usually accompanied by an overall dwarf size.  'Spilled Milk' is prostrate enough to drape over walls.


Diversity of foliage color can be present along with dwarfness, as with 'Carsten's Wintergold'; I'm not aware of a prostrate mugo that also has colorful needles, but I'm sure its appearance is just a matter of time. 


Needle coloring can be brought on by cold weather, as in the case of 'Carsten's Wintergold', or can be present year-round, as with 'Pot O' Gold'.  'Sunshine' is a dwarf cultivar whose needles are gold-banded; those of 'Yellow Point' are, indeed, only gold at their tips.  There are a couple of blue-needle cultivars, such as 'Wies Blue', but yellow-colored forms are much more prevalent.


'Green Candle' produces a conspicuously copious crop of male flowers, which are clustered at the tips of the branches.  They're light green.


Despite all of these differences in habit and needle color, all mugo pines still look, clearly, like mugo pines.  lt would be difficult to have very many of them in your garden without creating the impression that you have a mugo fetish, or at least a romping enthusiasm, that trumps the wider aesthetics of the garden itself.  Even a large garden isn't likely to need more than a few mugos, no matter how different they can be one to another.




By grafting.

Native habitat

Pinus mugo is native to mountainous regions of Southern Europe, from Spain to the Balkans.

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