WHEN 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?
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.
Its 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.
The 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.