19 October 2022: Today I learned:
A little more about the Japanese umbrella “pine” tree I bought and planted in 2017.
I first noticed Sciadopitys verticillata, Japanese Umbrella Pine, which is not a pine tree — don’t confuse it with the Italian umbrella pine, Pinus pinea — but it is an evergreen, at the Boston Flower Show in 2016.
The thought of it was still percolating in the significant portion of my mind devoted to plants when I went again to the flower show in 2017.
A month later, I saw one at the Heritage Museum & Gardens in Sandwich, Mass., on Cape Cod, and after coming home and researching the species, I decided to try to find one, which I did in May 2017 at the local nursery, a Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Winter Green.’ It’s bred not only for winter hardiness, which I appreciate, but also for green needles year-round, whereas the straight species’ needles go to yellow or bronze in winter (which I wouldn’t mind).
I planted it in the back corner of the back border, where it has, through no fault of my own, thrived. Apparently it’s hardy only to zone 5 (and I’m in 4b at the moment), though this variety may withstand cold better and deeper reading suggests that coldness may not be the factor that does Sciadopitys verticillata in but rather either sunburn or desiccation from dry winter winds. I think I’ve avoided the near occasion of sunburn with its location in part-sun but because it’s in a southwest corner of the yard partly under other trees, I’ll have to watch those winter winds while it’s small enough to burlap. So far, there’s been no problem. The house blocks some of the worst prevailing winds, from the northwest. Unfortunately, like 95% of plants suited to living around here, it craves well-drained loamy soil and I believe it’s planted in clay, though clay amended with compost, so that’s not optimal. The one thing I got accidentally right is that the soil is acidic (like much of New England soil), and that’s what this species prefers.
I know the tree can grow to a pyramidal 25-30 feet, but I read beforehand that it’s extremely slow growing and doesn’t reach its full height for decades, so although the spot where it’s planted will probably become confining eventually, by then I’ll have moved or be dead (or both), and perhaps the next house owner will remove the fence that frames it on two sides (which we installed for the dog we had then) and let the tree take all the space it needs once it’s 25 tall and 15 feet wide. As an article at The Spruce notes, “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.” That’s what I’m counting on. The American Conifer Society is even more reassuring about the height of the variety I have (‘Winter Green’): “Typical rate of growth in most areas is around 7.5 inches (20 cm) per year, resulting in a small dense tree, 6 feet (2 m) tall by 4 feet (1.3 m) wide after 10 years in the landscape.” Six feet high after 10 years (of which five have passed) is very feasible for the spot it’s in.
Margaret Roach mentions this tree in her book The Backyard Parables, which as I wrote a couple weeks ago we’re reading in my permaculture group, and her mention is what’s led to my learning more about it. She transplanted one specimen to her country home in Copake Falls, NY, near the Mass. border and the Berkshires, about 25 years ago, without knowing what she was doing, moving this then-rare Japanese specimen tree from the city to a new USDA hardiness zone and sticking it in the ground with only an “intention … for success.” She uses her experience as evidence that sometimes dumb wins when gardening and sometimes what plants need most is our whole-hearted enjoyment of them: “I never did anything, really, except to give it a decent home with the basics, and then delight in it. Maybe that’s the best approach.”
While I was googling today for additional information about the Japanese umbrella pine, I quickly stumbled on a piece the Roach had published just last week in the New York Times about this very tree (gifted link). Roach, like me, had had her head turned by one and been smitten: “I’d seen a specimen tree at an arboretum and couldn’t shake its come-hither look. It doesn’t resemble anything else.”
Plants that don’t resemble anything else are the plants I can’t resist. It’s why I bought a crabapple (Malus sargentii ‘Tina’) in the general shape of a martini glass (died suddenly after a few beautiful years), it’s why I have a weeping larch (Larix decidua ‘Pendula’, in ‘Tina’s’ former spot), a large weeping crabapple (Malus × scheideckeri ‘Red Jade’), and two weeping spruces (one replaced a Nishiki willow that was also eye-catching until its fairly rapid demise several years ago), as well as a shade garden full of giant Rodgersia with tropical leaves that look very exotic here and a dwarf River King birch (Betula nigra ‘Little King’) with extremely showy bark.
I planted two witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) this year, not only because it’s a lovely native, but also for its crooked branches and the irregular shape of the habit, the not-quite oval shape of the leaves, the odd late-fall yellow flowers, and the velvety fruits that actually form from last year’s flowers.
Roach, in the NYT article, also mentions that Sciadopitys is a plant family with just one genus, verticillata, similar to the ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), which is the only species in its genus (and in fact in its family). Both are ancient trees, and with the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) date “to early dinosaur times” and have “remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.” Ginkgos lose all their gorgeous and unique leaves on one day in the fall. I could plant one here — they’re hardy to zone 4, and there are varieties that reach only 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Hmmm.
There are other varieties of the Sciadopitys verticillata, including another that also looks suited to my mid-NH area, Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Joe Kozey’ developed by the same horticulturist as ‘Winter Green,’ Sidney Waxman at the Univ. of Connecticut — it’s also hardy to zone 5, with less spread and bred to withstand heavy snow loads, though it grows in height faster (12-15 inches per year); and two dwarf versions, Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Mecki’, which reaches just five feet high but may be hardy only to USDA Zone 6, and Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Gruene Kugel’ (4 feet tall, 3 feet wide) which is hardy to zone 5. Apparently, says the Oregon State Univ. website describing these two, there is a “German craze for Japanese umbrella pines.”
I’ve never noticed another Sciadopitys verticillata in my area, though doubtless there are some. It was delightful and unexpected to come across its mention in Roach’s book, and I’m rather thrilled to have this ancient being growing right in my yard.
Plant of the Week: Sciadopitys verticillata, Gerald Klingaman, Univ. of Arkansas Agricultural Extension, 26 Jan. 2007.
International Tree Tour: Japanese Umbrella Pine, SUNY Orange County Community College.
Sciadopitys verticillata, in The Gymnosperm Database, Christopher J. Earle.
The Japanese Umbrella Pine, In Defense of Plants, 18 Nov. 2018.
Featured image: very cute tip-top of the tree