beloved conifer: japanese umbrella pine

umbrella-pine-springWHEN I CAME TO THIS GARDEN more than 20 years ago, 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 the fourth in my series on beloved conifers.

That transplanting of the young umbrella pine will be 23 years ago this fall. At that time, 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?

I 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 experts come here and 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), and 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 arm or even lens.)

One year, after very heavy snowfall threatened to disfigure the tree or even break off limbs, friends suggested shearing it one 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.
umbrella-pine

160 comments
February 17, 2009

comments

  1. Gloria Williams says

    Thanks, Margaret. Have done more internet reading and evidently this selection is okay for container. Just got the beauty home – had to use a friend to transport – so I am anxious to get it settled, but may not actually “plant” in ground or in big pot for a week or so. Have to keep moist I know till settled in.
    Other plant purchased this weekend is a Wysteria ‘Amethyst Falls’ – anxiious to see it get going through the support structure.

  2. john says

    Thanks Margaret, on my skinny tree, what kind of nutrients do you recommend? It gets pleanty of sun & adequate water, I think. Other nearby plants (rhododendrons) and grass are doing fine.

  3. Tara says

    I have an 30+ umbrella pine and not sure how to trim it. I was told that you have to be careful trimming this tree. I need to trim bottom branches that are blocking the entrance to the driveway and don’t want to kill this beautiful tree. Thanks for your help!!!

    • says

      Hi, Tara. Work your way back on the lower branches to find a discreet spot to trim, such as back to form a ‘Y’ (there are usually two side shoots behind the longest tip of every branch). If you work carefully the tree will cover up the losses. You can also raise the skirt a bit by cutting off a very low branch or two or three, exposing some trunk. But as I say get under there and look at the way the branches and side branchlets form and it will reveal itself to you.

  4. John McC0nville says

    I live in Milton Mass on what was once the property of Nathaniel Kidder , a noted horticculturist of a century ago. Adjacent to a well preserved classic brick stable built ij 1880 stands a magnificent Japanese Umbrella Pine about 70 foot tall. It stands straight and tall thriving despite no special care. protected by the nearby stable. Although having no background or knowledge in the study of trees, I would like to learn more about the early history of this beautiful tree. Since Mr. KIdder was, I believe. at one time a president of the Mass Horticultural Society perhaps I could get more background information there. Nearby also stands a huge Katsura tree sadly in not nearly the superb health of the Umbrella Pine , but still alive and for the most part not yet ready for the chain saw men. It is too bad that with busy lives we must grow old and infirm before we stop and look at such magnificent living things like my Japanese Umbrella Pine, Dr John McConville

    • says

      What a wonderful story, John, and how lucky to live there! I don’t know more than what you say about Kidder’s history, but it would be fascinating to look into the MassHort records! Thanks for saying hello.

  5. Carolyn Colburn says

    Wow, a healthy 70 foot Umbrella Pine! Would love to see a photo of Dr. John’s inherited tree. Also would be interesting to learn more about Nathaniel Kidder.

  6. Katie says

    I have a 6 foot umbrella pine in PA. The garden shop I purchased the pine from and had planted is now closed. The pine is quickly turning reddish brown. The new growth is green for now. I want to save this beautiful tree but am not finding answers to my question of what do I need to do to help it. Is this from not enough water, or too much water or does it need food? Currently it gets all day sun in clayish soil. Any help would be appreciated.

    • says

      Hi, Katie. Don’t feed an ailing plant. (And I have never fed mine.) If it did go dry and is in a sunny spot it will hate it. You don’t say how many years it is in the ground but the first 2-3 years you have to really water regularly. You don’t want to swamp it (especially in clay) but don’t want it to have dried out, which it sounds as if it may have (especially as you say in full sun without protection). Did the brown start after the winter — was it possibly from winterburn?

  7. Katie says

    No it started after last weeks extremely hot temperatures. I was gone and when I returned it looked dead. We had it planted last fall and all was great until last week. I am hoping something will return there is one green branch, but the rest is brutally reddish brown. I am just heart broken. Thanks for the advise!

  8. eileen says

    I have a 3 ft umbrella pine that I put in a pot to wait unti it grows before I put it in the ground .. added some holly tone and nice soil mixed with peet moss .. was doing great but recently the needles at the end of each branch have been drooping for about two weeks and not perking up .. still nice and green .. it is in full sun .. watering it every day and it does not seem to be overwatered or too dry .. it may have gotten dry for two days while i was away but i have been really paying close attention to it since then.. any advice would be really appreiated .. i am in zone 7

    • says

      Hi, Eileen. Take it out of full sun and let it have a bit of relief from heat/sun as it’s probably not well-rooted at all and may be having trouble staying hydrated. Sometimes by transplanting an extra time (into a pot) we disturb the roots that much more and the plant experiences some setback. I don’t know how long it has been i the pot or how big the pot is, but remember: this plant does not want to bake!

  9. says

    Thanks Margaret .. I guess I thought it would be happier in the sun .. i immediately moved it into part shade .. hoping for the best .. so it is best in part shade or just until I put it in the ground? thanks so much .. this is a tree I just fell in love with a long time ago and finally found one in a local nursery .. thanks again for your quick response!!

  10. Bonnie says

    Hi Margaret:
    I just bought a small umbrella pine that I want to put in a fairly shady spot. It might get a few hours of morning sun but will otherwise be in the shade of 2 huge sugar maples for the afternoon. The soil is good and I will be vigilant with watering. Does the tree need full sun or do you think I can get away with part shade?

    • says

      Hi, Bonnie. I think that’s too dark and the tree will grow up to be loose and lanky looking, not nice. Part shade is OK but by that I mean more than a couple of morning (weakest) hours. Those maples will only shade it May to October, I expect though — yes? Hard for me to tell how the spot is from here, but I think of it as wanting half day sun or better — though not to fry either (it could take full sun here except in the winter, I think, when our drying winds in combination with an open location and freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw would likely burn it).

  11. Cheryl Criss says

    Our Umbrella fine was beautiful until it grew to about 12ft and got out of control up against the house. We tried pruning to no avail and ended up swaing the trunk @ about 7 feet.. We immediately regretted this and expexted to die. That was in April and it is still thriving. It looks silly the way we cut it and was wondering if there is anything we can do to make it look decent again? Wpould hate to have to remove it .

    • says

      Hi Cheryl. Ouch! It doesn’t do well with pruning, sad to say — if it didn’t have enough room to get to 20 or so feet wide and even taller than that where it was, it needed a bigger space. Having been topped, there is no telling what it will do next. Sometimes you can train another leader in some trees by inserting a very tall stake and bending a well-place flexible young branch into position and gently tying it to the stake to train it upward, but I would doubt umbrella pine was this cooperative.

  12. Carolyn C. says

    Out Umbrella Pine is competing with other trees in a smallish bed. It is likely 20 feet high now and my husband has given it a light pruning the last few years. The light cutting back does not seem to be harming it for which we are grateful. He has been prunning the other trees also, a Black Pine and a Japanese Split Leaf Maple.

    • says

      Hi, Carolyn. Yes, you can keep it somewhat in bounds by pinching the candles (nipping back the new growth when it’s soft) but harsh pruning would be disfiguring to this one, I think.

  13. Donna Devlin says

    Hi,
    I recently purchased a new home in Newburyport, MA. I am having an addition made to this home and it was pointed out to me that there is an umbrella pine tree where it is to be built. I don’t want to cut this amazing tree down yet my budget does not allow to transplant the tree. It stands about 20+ feet high and is in beautiful condition. I am considering selling the tree to someone who will properly transplant it but I don’t know where to begin looking. Would appreciate any advice.
    Thank-you, Donna

    • says

      Hi, Donna. Don’t cut it down! :( I only know specimen tree-movers in the NY area, such as . Why don’t you start by calling the famous woody-plant grower called Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton MA — I don’t know that they do it, but they have been in the tree and shrubs business for decades and might have a tip for you. The famous one in the Northeast that does it that I know: Marders in the Hamptons (LI). Again, worth calling around to ask for references maybe? Again: don’t kill it (though I can’t imagine how in the world it can be moved…so big!).

  14. Nina says

    I am trying to save my Umbrella Pine that is suffering from saltwater damage due to Hurricane Sandy. I love this tree and would really hate to loss it. About 40% of the needles have turned brown and fallen off, however there is some new growth on some of the branches. I’ve been using a soaker hose and I was thinking of fertilizer spikes, but not sure which ones would be the best. Is this something I can do myself or do I need an arborist?

    • says

      I don’t know, Nina, how much it can rebound. I’d call your county extension service (I don’t know where you are located?) and ask for advice about recovery from salt. I would not feed the tree while it is ailing, unless they say to. The salts remain in the soil and continue to have harmful effects in the worst cases, but as I understood it, minimizing damage was best accomplished right after a storm, by washing out the salts and sometimes adding gypsum to help with that and so on. Definitely ask your extension as I don’t have first-hand advice here.

  15. David Collinson says

    I recently got a very small specimen of Sciadopitys (about 10 cm tall) in a 9cm pot. I live in Shropshire, England, where the weather is unpredictable. This year we have had so much rain that my clay-based garden is saturated. Though there has been virtually no freezing weather, I know from experience there is a frost risk through April. My plan is to keep the plant on a cool, somewhat sunny windowsill until early May, and then put on a slightly sloped, slightly drier part of the garden in the partial shade of some other conifers and near a Gingko and a Nothofagus antarctica, hopefully creating a curiosity corner. There is about a spade-head’s depth of good soil before you hit the clay. How should I prepare the hole and what should I mix with the good soil? Dr David Collinson

    • margaret says

      Hello, David. Most references say the soil should be moist, rich, slightly acidic, well-drained — and warn against limey soils, or letting it dry out. You says yours is clayey, so it sounds as if organic matter is needed…lots of leaf mold?

      It’s a very hardy tree, technically (our USDA Zone 5 at least, maybe hardier, so at least down to minus 15 or 20 F technically). But the danger in winter is more to exposure and the risk of winter burn to the foliage (on a windy, exposed spot, for instance, or a spot that has any other extremes — e.g., I would not put it against the south wall of my home, which really heats up on sunny winter daytimes before temps drop way down at night — that kind of up and down would be bad for many conifers).

  16. greg says

    Hello Margaret: We bought 2 Japanese Umbrella pines last year from a man who’s father had passed – the father had a large tree farm and collected special varieties as well. We were told the both trees which were in 15 gallon containers are 65 years – one is about 15′, the other about 22’…both very narrow and beautiful. Both were green when we bought them in early 2013 but they began to brown up after a hot summer here in Calistoga, CA (Napa County). We had them on a drip system, but when their color began to brown we decided to put them in the ground, shearing the edges of their root balls since they were in a container for so long – did we do the wrong thing? They are still on a drip system but also still brown, having only a bit of green at the very top. Should we put them back in a container? It may be that this is just the wrong climate for them, which if that’s the case is very sad. We’d love to nurse them back if possible. Due to their height, we can’t find a place for them to avoid midday sun. What to do…struggling here. Any advice? Thanks much, Greg in Calistoga

    • margaret says

      Hi, Greg. It sadly does sound like wrong plant, wrong place — especially if they cannot be in the shade there (since Zone 7 or at most 8 is the upper end of their range, I think). And after so many years in pots, I’m sure the added stress was a factor, too. I do not know if they can recover from the extent of dieback that you describe, but definitely do not do anything else to them (like transplant again) to add to the stress.

      • greg says

        Margaret: We had to move them one last time…and I guess with enough love and care, there’s hope! We found a partial shady spot for them both and they have really greened up ;-) Makes us so happy…we’ll do our best to help them along in this not-so-ideal climate. Your website and all the comments have been very helpful. Thanks, Greg

  17. Mark says

    Hello Margaret and thank you for sharing your beautiful garden and lots of insights through this website. Could you please let us know what is the purple blooming plant to the right of Japanese umbrella pine ? Thanks a lot.

    • margaret says

      Hi, Mark. It is a very old giant of a rhododendron — large evergreen leaves. Probably 12 feet high and 25 feet across, and like 75 years old or so I bet.

      • Mark says

        75 years old rhododendron – that’s amazing ! Would it survive our winters ? I am in S/E Ontario, Canada with 5B USDA hardiness rank. If not, is there a plant with similar flowering suitable for this zone? Thank you.

  18. Connie Ohora says

    Hello,

    I purchased a Japanese Umbrella Tree from a garden center in PA. I live in zone 6 where I planted the tree in well drained soil but it gets the afternoon sun. It looks “wilted”. Should I plant it where it gets morning sun? We do have hit summer days here and I’m concerned I’ll lose the tree. It is well watered do I don’t think that’s the issue.

    Thanks.

    • margaret says

      Hi, Connie. I can’t see the plant of course…and I don’t know how recently you planted it. You also don’t say if it keeps getting more wilted, or seems to rebound a little? Plants (including trees sometimes), especially when they are suffering from a bit of transplant shock, will “wilt” as a defense mechanism. They can do so from another stressor, too, like too-dry soil and also too-wet soil (important to know that as we can overwater, not just underwater), or from a bout of heat — again, especially until they are well rooted in and can manage stress better.

      Sometimes when I transplant something I set up a temporary shade device (I have black woven shade fabric that I stretch on hoops for small things or clamp to bamboo poles for larger) to help it while it’s adjusting. Moving it again presents yet another possible round of insults to the plant — more stress — but I don’t know how hot and baking the site you chose is, and if in the end it’s a poor location, or just the tricky adjustment period of this plant, which is finicky. It will not be happy in a warm zone (don’t know how deep into PA you are and what zone) in a very hot spot.

  19. Donna Clark says

    I recently purchased a Sciadopitys verticillata, “Sternschnuppe.” I was told this is a smaller version of the Umbrella Pine and will do o.k. in a container. Are you aware of a difference between the two. This plant is about 2 feet tall and was 3 times the price of the somewhat smaller, younger Umbrella Pine. Do you recommend planting in a ceramic or wooden container (I live in Oregon)?

    • margaret says

      Hi, Donna. I hope it will be a VERY big pot, and that it will be of a frostproof material, since most ceramic/terra cotta pots will crack if left out in winter. Remember that a plant whose root system is above ground (deprived of the insulation and more stable moisture) is a zone and a half or thereabouts LESS hardy than one planted in the ground, and also far more susceptible to damage from drying out, especially in winter.

  20. Jackie Jones says

    Oops! We goofed. We just cut down a 12 foot umbrella pine. It was snow damaged at the top. And, losing needles…turning reddish brown and falling off. It had vastly outgrown the spot it was originally planted. It was crowded by a stonewall and a 8 foot tall granite post. So, it’s root system surely hadn’t grown evenly.
    We had no idea of the value of our tree, it’s uniqueness.
    Once we stop crying over our mistake…what can we do? Will new shoots grow from the stump. Will we be able to root some of the small branches? If there are seeds, can we plant them, how?

    Jackie, Rye Beach, NH

    • margaret says

      I think you must count it as a loss and learning experience, Jackie — and I don’t know if the stump will sprout anything or not. The tree is very, very, very slow from seed (and even the cones/seeds take multiple years to form). From cuttings, even some professionals have a very low rate of success (and that is using a bottom-heated mist bench in a greenhouse, and waiting for many months for rooting to begin, and years for a decent-sized specimen to grow). That’s why even small trees of the umbrella pine and very costly. Not easy to reproduce it.

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