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Japanese Umbrella Pine Trees

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Picture: young umbrella pine tree.

Picture from above of a Japanese umbrella pine tree when young. This one has been staked to keep it straight.

David Beaulieu

Plant Taxonomy of Japanese Umbrella Pine:

Japanese umbrella pine is classified as Sciadopitys verticillata in plant taxonomy. Specific cultivars do exist (see below), but the intent behind the present article is to offer facts about the species plant, primarily.

Plant Type:

This conifer is a needled evergreen tree.

If you're versed in the scientific names of plants at all, then you may realize that Sciadopitys verticillata is not a true pine, despite its common plant name. True pines have Pinus in their botanical names: e.g., eastern white pines (Pinus strobus). To read about other examples, see:

  1. Dwarf pine trees
  2. Mugo pines

Characteristics:

As trees go, this will be a small one in your landscaping for quite some time, assuming you buy a young sapling. It is a slow grower. So even though it may eventually attain a height of 25-30 feet (although it grows considerably taller in its native habitat) with a spread of about 15-20 feet, expect it to remain a much smaller specimen for many years.

As it starts to get taller, it will assume a form that is pyramidal or "narrowly conical." How narrow a form, precisely, it does assume will depend on a number of factors, including whether or not you allow multiple trunks to form and whether and/or how you prune. Long-lived, it may outlive you and may put on much of its eventual height only during the life of the next homeowner, who takes over from you.

The needles are thick, dark green and glossy. They can attain a length of about 5 inches. Their color may change somewhat in winter; mine acquire a little bit of yellow in them but remain attractive.

Just as the tree is a slow grower, so it will be slow to produce cones. If and when they do come, they will be 2-4 inches in length. On older trees, the bark will be reddish-brown and will peel. This "exfoliating" bark can add to the display, given adequate visibility.

Planting Zones:

Japanese umbrella pine trees are indigenous to Japan. According to PlantExplorers.com, it is "one of the five sacred trees from Japan's Kiso forest." In terms of the USDA map, they grow best in planting zones 5-8.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Japanese Umbrella Pines:

The growing recommendations for this tree are full sun and an evenly moist but well-drained soil. A loamy soil enriched with humus is probably the ideal. In terms of soil pH, it should be on the acidic side.

Uses:

Japanese umbrella pine trees are chiefly used as specimen plants. While they function well in that role year-round, they are especially effective when deciduous trees are bare; i.e., as is often the case with evergreens, they are most appreciated for the visual interest in winter that they afford.

Given their origin, the plants are also valued by aficionados of Japanese gardens, both for landscaping purposes and to create bonsai.

Care, Cultivars:

These novel specimens cannot be relied upon to withstand drought successfully, nor are they especially cold-hardy. This confines them to a somewhat tighter range than most trees. Japanese umbrella pines remind me of golden chain trees in this sense: they don't want it too hot, but they don't want it too cold, either.

What does this mean in terms of care? Well, first of all, at the warmer end of their range, make sure that they are well watered; you may even wish to give them a little afternoon shade. At the cooler extreme of their range, they may suffer winter burn, so locate them in sheltered locations (where they won't be exposed to the worst of the winds) or consider providing them with winter protection via a shelter or by wrapping in burlap. Regarding such winter protection, however, there are two drawbacks:

  1. You obscure the view, thereby robbing the plant of winter interest
  2. It will work only while the tree is still short, since covering taller specimens won't be feasible

Some cultivars of note include:

  • 'Aurea'
  • 'Variegata'
  • 'Pendula'

If you're a student of cultivar names, you can probably guess what traits these cultivars feature. 'Aurea' has golden foliage, while the leaves of 'Variegata' are variegated. Meanwhile, 'Pendula' can be counted among the weeping trees.

Origin of the Name:

The specific epithet, verticillata in the botanical name, Sciadopitys verticillata means "whorled," referring to the arrangement of its needles. That same arrangement gives the plant its common name. Apparently, the whorls of needles reminded the plant's namer of the ribs on an umbrella. Verticillata is found in various other plant names, including Ilex verticillata which is the holly commonly named "winterberry."

Sciadopitys verticillata is different from the Italian umbrella pine (Pinus pinea). If you remember their respective botanical names, you'll never confuse them: the latter's name has "pine" written all over it, as it were, while the former, as indicated above, is not a true pine at all.

Outstanding Feature of Japanese Umbrella Pine Trees:

Although the form or "habit" (see above) can be exquisite, especially when a Japanese umbrella pine becomes columnar, the chief quality that draws people to these trees is the needles. Specifically, their sheen is so pronounced that they have been described as "plastic-looking." That's usually a demerit, but in this case it's high praise. That invitee to your landscaping who's unfamiliar with the plant and asks if it's plastic need only be brought over to your Japanese umbrella pine for a feel. Touching this unusual plant -- a pleasurable experience in itself, by the way -- will immediately confirm that, yes, it is "real," and the revelation will bring joy both to you and your skeptical visitor.

Facts About Japanese Umbrella Pine Trees:

Like Ginkgo biloba trees, these evergreens are among the oldest trees in the world. In fact, they date back to prehistoric times. Perhaps that's why the tree is so lonely: it has outlived its kin. Let me explain:

When we research a plant's botanical classification, we usually encounter an extensive "family tree," if you will. Starting from the more general and working our way down to the more specific, we have kingdom, division, class, order, family, genus and species. For our purposes in landscaping, it usually suffices to begin with family. Typically, a plant family will be an enormous grouping of disparate plants, containing multiple genera, each of which, in turn, encompasses numerous species. But Japanese umbrella pine trees buck convention in this regard.

You see, these prehistoric relics are the sole species within their genus. Not only that, but the genus, Sciadopitys is entirely alone within its family, namely, Sciadopityaceae. When this tree arrives at a family reunion, it can stuff itself on the goodies to its heart's content, because its close relatives aren't going to show up -- they don't exist, at least not any more.

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