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

150 comments
February 17, 2009

comments

  1. michele says

    I have an JUP that is about 11 years old. I just love it, but we planted it near a walk way. Now the plant is growing onto the walk way. Can we cut it back by cutting it up the side so it won’t be in the way of anyone using the walk way?

    • says

      Welcome, Michele. It won’t respond well to shearing, or at least will lose its graceful shape. The solution will be a judgment call one way or the other — disfigure it with shearing one side; limb it up to have no low branches that interfere with the walk; move the walk (and I am not kidding on the last one — I am considering that here in one spot, rather than disfigure an old woody plant). Tricky, tricky. And we all fall for this mistake. Trees like this get W-I-D-E at the base, and we never leave the room!

  2. Florence Wiley says

    Finding this site gives me great hope that you can answer my questions about my JUP that was planted in 2005. The JUP was approximately 3 feet tall and is now approximately 8 feet tall. This summer the tree is not a dark green but is a lighter green with yellow showing at the base of some of the needles. The tree is full of new growth. I’ve just inspected it (with my reading glasses in place) and to my great dismay have found that it appears to have a lot of spider webs. I did not find active spider mites but the webs make me wonder if this is the reason the plant isn’t its normal dark green. How should I treat it? We’ve used the Bayer systemic for trees and shrubs on other trees in past years when they were attacked by various insects. Your thoughts would be most welcome.

    In reading your blog, I have recognized that this tree may have another problem. The tree has multiple trunks. The heavy snow storms 2 winters ago were very hard on it as it was bent almost to the ground under the weight of the snow several times. The smaller but almost as tall trunk tends to move around the larger trunk breaking or damaging some of the growth. I haven’t cut it out because the smaller trunk carries a lot the mass of the tree. The heavy snow also caused damage to the lowest branches which I removed and immediately regretted. Thus, I’m hesitant to prune the smaller trunk out. Any thoughts on how to proceed?

    FYI: In 2005 we had a new house, no topsoil just clay with absolutely no decayed plant material so we trucked in soil to create raised planting beds, then in 2006 bought the first tractor trailer load of mushroom soil that we began using in 2007, created more raised planting beds, we use layers of newspaper topped with several inches of hardwood mulch to improve the soil as it breaks down, fertilize twice a year with Hollytone. We planted trees, shrubs, perennials, Spring bulbs, a veggie garden and have a small pond creating a lovely secret garden behind a split rail fence. This year the plants are closing ranks even keeping the weeds away. As I type this, I’m looking at the picture of the smiling gal in a mature garden and can truly say that I understand.

  3. Carolyn says

    Our JUP is at least 20 years old and very healthy. We have, like others, lost some branches from heavy snow and high winds, so it is not as pretty as is use to be. I have noticed that some of the cones are sprouting needles. Is this normal? Not understanding the various ways they may propagate, I have wondered if this is the beginning of a new tree? Happy to have found your site!

    • says

      Welcome, Florence. Do you perhaps have spider mites? Read up here (and search elsewhere for spider mites on conifers). If this sounds right, the mites are VERY tiny…not like real spiders. Have a read and see if that’s it. My tree has multiple trunks, too, and it’s OK; you really have to make a judgment in person and I can’t see your tree from here! Sounds like cutting it out at this stage would be very drastic, though.

      Welcome, Carolyn. The big seed cones (there are also smaller “pollen cones” on the plant) start out green and eventually ripen to brown — maybe you are just seeing them in their first year, when they look to have greenish portions? They take a couple of years to mature, until the seed is ripe…and seed is where a new plant would come from eventually if it germinated.

  4. Carol Miller says

    Hi Margaret, We have a 3 foot tall JUP. We have had it 3 years. We protect in the winter with a structure so the winds and snow don’t break the branches. We live in upstate New York. This year some of the needles have turned brown and are falling off. We have had plenty of rain so I doubt that is the cause. It gets morning and early afternoon sun and is in a fairly protected area. Do you have any ideas as to the cause of the browning? Thanks, Carol

    • says

      Thank you, Carol — and welcome. Winterburn (winter wind, or sun followed by either wind or drastic temperature drop) will damage and kill off needles on many conifers, especially ones with such lush foliage as this. So will ice storms. I wonder if that’s what happened — even plants that are wrapped can be injured, and the injury will be worst on windy, exposed sites, or after a dry fall when plants are extra vulnerable. The innermost needles are meant to die and shed every three years (like other conifers, a percentage of old foliage shedding is normal) but this sounds more serious. Is it a windswept spot?

  5. Florence Wiley says

    Re: broken trunk on JUP Many years ago my black lab broke the main stem on a small JUP that had been in the ground maybe 2 years and was about 3 feet tall. A gardening friend suggested that I gently “pull up” one of the remaining lower branches (over a period of several weeks so as not to break the branch off) and hold the “new trunk” in position tied to a stake. Well, it worked! The tree is now quite large and bushy. You would never know that it had had such severe damage. Oh, and now I know to use holly leaves/branches under prized plants to keep the dogs (and cats) away. Thanks for your above thoughts on my tree. I’m learning so much from your blogs! Even answering our questions about where our frogboys went and why!!!

  6. Laura says

    I 1st saw the umbrella pine at our local arb. Love the succulent -like bright green needles. A very beautiful pine tree!

    • says

      Welcome, Laura. It really is distinctive, a true beauty. Mine is my great treasure in the garden here, the first thing I planted 25+ years ago, brought from my former garden in the moving van.

  7. Shannon says

    Greetings from Edmonds, WA. Ayear and a half ago we transplanted a 20′ tall JUP that is 45 years. After a very cold abd Wet winter and spring it now has brown needles. There is still some green at the top. I mixed coir in at the roots in case the soil was too heavy. Any suggestions?

  8. Peter says

    Such a marvelous tree! I encountered an enormous specimen a few weeks ago in Allen Haskell’s Nursery near New Bedford, Mass. They said he planted it during World War II. It was easily 30 feet wide and had two distinctive towers – and a wonderland inside.

  9. Doug Kett says

    And I thought the black bears did mine in. LoL It was 6 feet tall and beautiful. Two winters ago I lost about three feet of it. This past winter I lost 2 of the 3 new main braches
    I love this site,

    Doug

  10. Sean says

    Hi Margaret, wonderful website! I’m also a fan of Planting Fields. My wife and I found a lovely specimen of this tree (only 3′ feet high) and have planted it in our tiny front yard. Is there any way to properly ‘prune’ this tree to keep it from growing more than 10′ high or so? Or would that just be asking too much of this tree? Worse case, we could find something similar and transplant it at a relative’s home. Thank you very much!

  11. Carolyn says

    Did not see your message responding to my question about the cones spouting needles until today. Thank you for responding. Yes, I have noticed the large cones to have a greenish color when they are in their first year. But I am also seeing distinct needles protruding from the tops of the cones! My husband has clipped the candles in past years to try and keep the growth under a little control. Looking at the photo of your tree and its placement in a more open setting, I wish we had done the same. Ours is encroaching on our driveway!!!

    • says

      Hi, Carolyn. I think the seed cones (which take 2 years to ripen) have bracts (leaves) in them. These are very primitive plants and fascinating, aren’t they?

  12. Carolyn says

    Hello, Margaret. Yes, the Umbrella Pine is a wonderful primitive tree. A young boyscout happened to come by our house a few years ago. He looked at the tree and said “What kind of tree is this?” I was so pleased that even a young person understood that this was a unique tree. Is there a way I could send you a photo of one of the “sprouting” cones?

  13. Patrick Wakefield says

    A client of mine planted a umbrella pine a few weeks ago from a container into her yard. now the tree is clorises, Do you know if this is just transplant shock or if the tree has a mineral defiency ?

  14. mark says

    we have a 40 ft. Japanese umbrella pine in our yard in southern NH which has weathered many harsh winters. Last winter our tree sustained some damage in it’s lower limbs. A number of branches had needles that turned a rather bright reddish brown. They seem to stay on the tree. We have noticed a little new growth over the past summer. Do we trim these branches off? what do you think the problem is?
    It is a stunning tree and we want to not lose it.
    Thank you.
    Mark

    • says

      Hi, Mark. A combination of factors can affect how evergreens in particular hold up in winter, including when there is a dry season in the preceding summer/fall, which can make them more apt to burn in winter winds/sun, for instance. I have had winterburn on small parts of my umbrella pine a few times, though thankfully not extensive damage.

      My usual rule of thumb with woody things is if the branch is still flexible (not brittle), I figure there is some hope that it’s alive. So I wait. The brown needles won’t revive (usually they will eventually pull out if you merely rub the branches), but I like to wait and see if the branch itself will push some new growth before I go cutting it off. Not sure how long since the problem began (“last winter” meaning just the last few months or the year before?).

  15. Mark says

    Thanks for your quick response, Margaret.
    The problem occurred during the winter of 2010-11. The dead needles have been holding on for quite a while. I’m just wondering if it’s hurting the tree more to keep them on, or take the more badly damaged ones off.

    Also, unrelated to this– I’m not sure if I have a tree or trees. There are 2 trunks that seem to be joined near the ground level. One trunk is only a few feet smaller than the other. Is this a property of this type of tree?

    Mark

    • says

      Hi, Mark. Many umbrella pines are multi-stemmed (but just one tree). It doesn’t hurt the tree to hold dead foliage, except in a heavy snowstorm or ice storm when any extra foliage can take on extra load. I suspect you’ll find that by now they will come off easily if you pull on them — just see if the branch behind them is still alive or not before you cut it off. Sometimes I have had some parts of a branch die and not other side branches a little farther up or down the line.

  16. Karen says

    I have a windmill pine in my yard that I have been nursing along for the past ten years or more, since it was about 1.5′ tall. It is now 5.5′ in height. Unfortunately a deer made his lunch of it one day and stripped out or damaged every branch in the middle two feet of the tree. It looks pathetic! Any suggestions about what I can do to minimize the damage and make the tree look OK again?

    • says

      I don’t know what a windmill pine is, Karen, I hate to say — what genus/species it is (a true pine, genus Pinus, and do you have the rest of its name)? Long-needled, short ??? Generally speaking that kind of severe disfiguration isn’t going to be easy to correct, unless you are OK with a lolly-pop (leaving the top and cutting off everything else). Oh, my.

  17. Mark says

    Thank’s for all your help Margaret. One last thing– is there any type of fertilizer that would be beneficial for the umbrella pine? Thanks

  18. Mary says

    My umbrella pine ia about 5 years old and 5 feet tall now. The deer did a job on one side in the winter of 2010 so I put a fence around it last year. and that helped as it has come back and filled in pretty well. Now I have another problem . It is beginning to turn yellow on the side facing a 35 foot black walnut tree ….is the Black walnut toxicity affecting the pine as it is in within the drip line of the walnut..
    We also have a rich loamy soil so I might need to add acid to it. OR should I move the umbrella pine.

    • says

      Hi, Mary. SO many possibilities…and I don’t know about the allelopathic effects of the black walnut on the umbrella pine specifically. However, winter windburn/sunburn (especially in a dry or too-fast-draining soil) can happen as well. Are you near the shore and is it windy? Our winter here inland was very windy and dry. What I’d do: Did you buy it from a local nursery? I’d be in touch with them in the hopes that they have some experience with it (or you could take a snapshot with you to show them). Sorry not to be able to tell from here. :)

  19. Mary says

    Margaret, I forgot to say that the Umbrella Pine(which I read is not actually a pine) is within a 50′ distance to the dripline of the 35′ walnut tree that I mentioned above and is along the southern coast of RI.

  20. Mary says

    Thanks Margaret……am waiting to hear from the nurseryman now. Just discovered your site and have been interested in comments from the other owners of these trees.

  21. Alison says

    Hi Margaret,
    I just fell in love with a 5′ umbrella pine at our nursery. It would have to live in the house, south window with overhand, but some morning sun. (we get to -35 here, zone 4. We are at 6,200 ‘ feet here in Carbondale, CO.
    I think it would need humidity help and wonder how I could enhance that. Also, can it live inside OK? Please say yes…
    Thanks, Alison

    • says

      Hi, Alison. I don’t think you can grow it in the house, sorry to say. It gets to be a giant tree, plus it wants a winter (though a little less cold than yours). You could probably grow it in a giant pot for 5 years or thereabouts, and wheel it into the garage/shed in winter for protection, but it would eventually outgrow that situation (and the building would have to be well-insulated, though not heated). What did the nursery selling it have to say about how the plant is doing locally — or are they only selling it to people at lower elevation or ????

  22. says

    Thank you, Margaret. for info on Umbrella Pine. Think your site, is splendid, yet personal. I will ask about the tree at this altitude, because of curiosity.. And thank you so much for discouraging inside. I will control my desire to have it! Some people have large greenhouses here–alas, not me. Nurseryman wintered one over last year in a protected space.
    Both a ficus, then a Norfolk Island pine grew in that spot (to about 9 feet, each.)
    A light-filtering and privacy tree would be nice in or near that window inside (the aspens outside had to be cut down, in twelve years they grew to 40 feet tall and over a foot in diameter. High winds here.
    Any tree ideas for inside? And don’t worry about size, as it will outlast me, I think.
    Alison

  23. Gloria Williams says

    I have wanted one of these trees for years ever since I saw the first one! Yesterday purchased a Japanese Umb. Pine ‘Joe Kozey” at a local nursery – says grows only 7′ x 2′. Am wondering if I could plant in a big container for just outside my front door. I live in zone 7.

    • says

      Hi, Gloria. If it’s really 7 by 2, why not…but the pot has to be VERY big to insulate the roots really well. VERY big. Have never seen a dwarf one.

  24. john says

    Margaret, I have an Umbella Pine purchased at a nursery about 10 years ago, and seems tall and thin. The tree is now about 10 feet tall, and the diameter at the bottom is probably 4 feet or less, and while each branch appears healthy, on whole it looks like is needs to fill out a bit. Is there any way to prune the top or feed it to help it thicken up a bit. I am in Zone 5, outside of Boston. Thanks

    • says

      Hi, John. One year to sort of thicken mine up a bit we pinched the candles (fresh new growth) back partway over the whole thing, but it is a tedious and very fussy task on a big plant. Is it getting good light, water, nutrients?

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