beloved conifer: japanese umbrella pine

japanese umbrella pine 3WHEN I CAME TO THIS GARDEN in the 1980s, I brought just two plants, tucked into the back of the moving van last-minute by movers who looked at me as if to say, “Really, lady?” One was a clump of dark purple Siberian iris tossed into a recycled produce-store bushel basket; the other a young Japanese umbrella pine I’d had for only a few years and just couldn’t seem to leave behind. Thank goodness I didn’t. Sciadopitys verticillata is my most beloved conifer, and the most-asked-about plant in my garden all these years.

At the time of the transplanting of the young umbrella pine, I had never seen another except in botanical-garden collections; unusual or rare was the word. Now they’re at nurseries, but usually quite small and always quite expensive, and they’re pretty easy to kill, at least at first. But what did I know when I uprooted the tree and had it put in that truck?

umbrella-pine-springI was just getting really serious about plants, and was a beginning garden writer, meaning I had the privilege of getting paid to visit gardens and nurseries and interview experts for stories. Those years formed my advanced education in horticulture—and also my downfall in self-control. Everybody showed me or told me about something I simply had to have. Or two or three.

An umbrella pine first spoke to me in a come-hither voice at Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, Long Island, a place I’d visited a lot as a teenager that happily became part of my “beat” as garden editor of Long Island-based “Newsday” newspaper.

umbrella-pine-detailIts needles are arranged in whorls, like the spokes in an umbrella, hence the name (see detail photo). And there’s something else attention-grabbing about the foliage: Visitors to the garden often come to find me to ask about the “tree over there with the plastic-looking needles,” since they’re so thick and lustrous. (Technically, it also has another kind of leaf, the tiny scale leaves on the stems, but nobody notices those, at least not at first.)

That’s the umbrella pine, I say, and it’s not actually a pine at all.

It’s an ancient thing, and like Ginkgo has been around since dinosaur times, also forming the solitary species in its genus and family. Other odd bits: The umbrella pine’s cones take nearly two years to size up after pollination. When expert visitors come here during Open Days and happen to see how many my tree bears, they always tell me that last fact, to make sure I am properly impressed.

umbrella-pine-conesThe tree, whose foliage is much darker green and sometimes even bronzy in winter (bottom photo), grows to perhaps 30 feet tall in a garden setting and half or more as wide (much bigger in the wild). It has beautiful reddish bark you never see unless you crawl around beneath. (Which I just did 10 minutes ago to scavenge a couple of cones for that photo, since I cannot reach the ones way up in its topmost section with my arm or even lens.)

One year, after very heavy snowfall threatened to disfigure the tree or even break off limbs, friends suggested shearing it in spring, just as the new growth or candles emerged. This gentle tipping back seems to have reduced the umbrella pine’s inclination to get more lax with age, at least for the moment. It also made it more pyramidal in shape.

Umbrella pines hail from cloud forests in Japan, where rainfall and humidity are both high, so don’t expect Sciadopitys to cooperate with drought. Baby it in the first year or two after transplanting, in particular. If you want to grow one in the warmer end of its range (Zones 5 to 7 or 8), protection from the midday sun would be appreciated. Oh, and one more “expert” tip: Skip the stupid moving-van caper I somehow got away with.


February 17, 2009


  1. Garry says

    Hello Margaret,
    Can you help us? We live in Zone 5 in Mass. We have a beautiful Umbrella Pine, easily 15′ tall, that is being shaded out by a golden mop false cypress on either side.
    Yes they were the wrong plants to plant there as they grew so much faster than the pine. Due to a long illness, we didn’t pay attention to what was happening outside. Right now about 1 third of the pine has lost its lower needles. we are willing to sacrifice the Golden Mops in the hopes that the lower branches of the pine will somewhat (somehow??) regrow. Are we filled with false hope? should we get rid of the Golden Mops and live with the beautiful pine minus its lower third – planting other slow/low growing plants (rhodies?) to cover up our neglect?
    We feel awful!
    Before the shading by the mop tops, the pine was happy in its location, with the soil and water.
    Thank you for any advice you can offer,

    • margaret says

      Hi, Garry. I wish I has a definite answer. Whether it will regrow from the sparse sides depends on whether the wood is alive (flexible/supple, not brittle and dry). Since the golden mops are not as precious as the Sciadopitys, I’d be inclined to sacrifice (or move) them to try to rehab the other, but it will probably be a wait-and-see undertaking, where you’ll have to let the tree tell you what’s alive, and what shape it will eventually take in the damaged areas (or whether you will be forced to limb up into some attractive shape once it does show you the potential or lack of potential for regrowth.

  2. Michelle says

    We have an old umbrella pine about 30′ or higher. Can it be replanted? Its next to my pool which needs redoing and we love the tree and would like to move it

    • margaret says

      You should contact the most expert tree moving company you can find nearby; it’s a risky and gigantic job involving heavy equipment (tree spade machinery etc.) and costly. I don’t know where you are located, but usually either a tree farm, if there is one near you, or a nursery that does high-end landscaping will have a referral for such a person.

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