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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.

umbrella-pine

  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,
    Garry

    1. 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. lorens says:

      Garry, The Sciadopitys can regrow from the trunk. The dead branches will not bud out. You can prune the mops away from the pine, or cut them. If they are in good shape you might move them. I have hundreds of Sciadopitys up to 25 feet tall. I have planted and moved hundreds. Once you move the mops, give the pine fertilizer and water to encourage new growth.
      Good luck, Lorens

  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
    Thanks

    1. 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.

  3. Robin says:

    I feel in love with a Japanese Umbrella Pine and had to have one! I am in Charlotte, NC, and planted my first Japanese Umbrella Pine in November 2013; it died by the end of Summer 2014. I replaced with another, working in additional planting soil and raising a bit, in November 2014, and it now has died. Both plants were 3′-4′ tall. My beds are irrigated with soaker hoses which run twice/week. The soil around the pines was seemingly moist; not dry, but not a mucky mess either. The location receives full sun until mid-afternoon. I love this plant and desperately want one…and in this location which seemed so perfect! Any ideas? Dare I try yet again?!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Robin. I wish I knew with a certainty what’s up. Mine just “took” but most people tell me it has been a struggle. Sorry not to have the answer.

  4. Renee says:

    I am so sick, the nursery I purchased my Umbrella Pine had a tag of shad to full sun. So what did I do, I planted it in the middle of my back yard. This was last year and now its all sunburnt and dying. I water everyday and I even dump a gallon of water on it every evening. We have sandy ground so it drains well. Is there any hope to this plant still? I was planning on place screens around it in the winter this year to try to protect it that way. The stem is still alive. Thanks

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know whether they can recover and grow a full set of needles where older ones have been lost. A little tip burn is one thing; wholesale desiccation back to the wood another. Hard to evaluate the damage there from a distance, needless to say! I don’t know how this plant would fare over time in a sandy soil — it wants a highly organic soil (neither clayey nor sandy but with lots of humus in it) so that it never stays soggy, but doesn’t drain so fast that the roots dry out, either, before the plant has a good, slow drink. Especially in a warmer zone (I am 5B) and a sunnier than shady spot…really hard for it to stay hydrated, especially in the first few years of getting adjusted and rooted in.

  5. Jay says:

    Hello,

    Thank you for the article. We have a 30 foot tall umbrella pine. It is my most favorite tree. I wanted to know if you knew the proper method in which to propigate new trees from its pine seeds? I would love to grow more for others. Thank you again.

    Jay

  6. Thor Hilmar says:

    Hello Margaret. Thank you again for opening your garden for all to see again this year. Its always a highlight for me. I have just moved a 15 year old Japanese Umbrella Pine up from the city. We just had an offer on our apartment so Im now trying to figure out how to plant it. I like you couldn’t leave it behind. Its an old friend. With tomorrow being December 1st I’m a little nervous about what I should do when planting it in my yard in Copake in the morning. Would you please give me some advice? Very thankful for any knowledge you can pass on to me. All the best! Thor

    1. margaret says:

      Wow, what a daring move, Thor! But I do understand. I honestly didn’t do anything except put it safely in the ground, and it just took. They can get winterburn so without being well rooted in. I have never myself wrapped anything evergreen to try to prevent that, and these days wrapping isn’t usually recommended (nor are sprays called anti-transpirants, which people used to think helped but do not). Apparently a burlap barrier that sort of acts as a windbreak can help if the site is brutal…but I can’t imagine how I’d install one that wouldn’t blow away on my windy spot. Hopefully your tree has been very well-watered all fall, and continue watering till the ground freezes solid.

  7. Jayden Masako says:

    Hello Margaret,

    I was so happy to find your website. I have a 30 foot tall umbrella tree in my backyard. The homeowner had planted it. In late November, I collected over 70 seeds from the open pine cones and they are currently sitting in cold germination.

    Could you provide any advice on how to germinate the seeds successfully?

    Thank you again,

    Jayden

  8. Edna Murdock says:

    Hello,

    I wanted to know the growth rate and time, nobody ever mentions it…I am getting one for here, it just drew me…but I have been trying to get information about it growth rate and can’t find anyone that has any information on that.

    Could you help me pls?

  9. Jim potts says:

    If you don’t mind a little input, I would like to offer input. I have grown many over the years with good success, from 1yr seedlings. It was said to me that the Sciadopitys do not like “Wet Feet”. Over watering can and will kill them. Moist soil, but well drained. I am from the Philadelphia, PA ,area, and have had no problems with freezing issues. As far as branches breaking, I find that loosely attaching cloths line rope near the base and loosely wrap the branches as you go around the tree to the near top, and loosely tie it off. This will protect the branches, as well as train them for shape. In the spring remove the rope. The umbrella centers are red clusters which will produce about 6 new branches, next season. If that dies, that little branch is gone. In the Springtime, don’t mess with the new shoots, as they are very tender. When young the new shoots will grow about 5″-6″ / yr, later will be about 9″/yr. fertilize in the spring or late Fall.

  10. chander says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I was hoping you would be able to assist me. I have a beautiful umbrella pine approx. 15-17 ft tall. As of this early spring, we had added on top existing weed barrier and very little left over mulch, we added a single layer of weed barrier and new 3/4 inch stones on top. I am noticing 3 different areas where the branches are dark brown/reddish dead pines, like entire branches. They are towards the bottom around outside of this tree. It is also a little on top. As of recent 3 -4 weeks, its been very hot in NJ like 90 degree real feel like 100+, not too much rain. I don’t want to lose my precious umbrella tree. So far I have started to water weekly apprx, 25mins with a nozzle set on shower, I have also scattered 9 cups of
    tree-tone around all my trees. I am going to cut off the dead branches to see if any more new branches are turning brown. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
    I could send you some pics. if necessary.

    Thank You in Advance!!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Chander. Sorry about your tree, but lots of things might be adding up (along with the very dry year we’ve had and the intense heat) to trouble. In the Northeast we have been below average rainfall in many areas and above average heat the last year, and had no real winter precipitation that big trees rely on.

      My advice would have been not to feed it when it is showing stress signs, but thankfully you didn’t use anything fast-acting. Also: I’d say definitly not to mulch it with stone (that is not the kind of additional heat trap it wants; this is not a plant of gravelly habitats), and actually never, ever to use weed barrier fabric under trees and shrubs (or really anywhere; bad stuff).

      The watering you describe is nowhere close to what a plant that size will want. Either buy soaker hoses to lay all around the root zone (which is even wider than the tree!) and let them drip slowly for many, many hours at least once weekly or use a fan-type sprinkler on a low setting that runs all day long and wets the root area (not spraying high in the air, and not shooting all the water down right along the trunk).

      I’d remove the stones, take out the fabric, and give this plant a natural “organic” mulch (meaning something formerly living that’s been composted, read about that at this link) but first: Get on a serious watering regimen so it doesn’t go into winter dry and stressed.

  11. Susan says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I have a 2.5yr old JUT sapling. I live in W. MA & the drought of 2016 took it’s toll on this poor tree. It stands about 6’ tall & has lost most of its bottom & mid growth. I made a large well around it during that time, but all the water I gave it wasn’t enough. It is now coming back to life with lots of green fresh growth, but sadly mostly at the top. It has also developed 2 leaders beginning about 5’ level. I staked it up allowing it to make it through winter’s snowfall but have resigned myself to realize this will never be an attractive tree. I do want to give it a chance. Should I remove 1 of the leaders? I’m afraid with new lush top growth, the plant will be way too top-heavy. And any other recommendations for giving this tree a future is very much appreciated.
    Thank you…

    1. margaret says:

      Mine originally had 3 leaders and now has just 2, so it is not uncommon for them to be multi-stemmed. Hard to know what to do without seeing it, sorry to say.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joy. It’s a VERY slow process and requires some pre-treatment of the sown seed for several months in the fridge and often yield low germination…and the resulting seedlings (if any) won’t be ready for the open ground for a year or two I believe if then. Often it is done from cuttings, but that, too, requires a proper setup. Some discussion of the seed experience (and also here). Starts to explain why they are so expensive as nursery plants.

  12. Dee Lucas says:

    Margaret, I just purchased an umbrella pine. It is in a six inch container and about 5 inches tall. I live in Zone 9. It gets very hot here in the summer. I was wondering if I could grow it in a pot; if so, how large of a pot should I plant it in and what kind of soil.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Dee. Yikes, that’s outside my expertise, except to say that the upper (warmer) range of its hardiness as a landscape plant is Zone 8 many sources say, though a few say Zone 9, so it isn’t going to tolerate being in the baking heat in a small pot especially. I don’t know which one you got, but though they are slow-growing they do become trees of 20+ feet generally.

      They like rich, moist soil (not sodden but moisture-retentive soil with good organic-matter content)…probably not what you have in the ground, but something you will have to concoct from store-bought ingredients. Not a “pro mix” kind of lightweight peat-rich mix but maybe one with more bark content (ask at the garden center), plus some compost.

      So it would need a big pot eventually, and a location that didn’t toast it nonstop (no full-on afternoon sun in your zone I think), and will need to be watered a lot. But if it’s only a tiny thing right now you don’t want to move it up to a big pot till it grows — which means nursing it along gradually and increasing the pot size as needed over time. Not easy.

      (On the other extreme, I have seen them occasionally touted as “bonsai” subjects, but have no first-hand experience. This nursery in Sonoma County, I see, does recommend them as such; perhaps someone like that knows? Bonsai, of course, is about artistic hard pruning to keep the plant very small…and I presume you’d have to bring it indoors like a houseplant or something in the hottest months, since with a small amount of soil it would just be frying? Again, outside my expertise.)

  13. Donna Speaks says:

    Do you know if you can grow an umbrella pine with the use of its pine cones? I have hundreds in a container, just don’t know if there is something you need to do before planting them. My Umbrella pine has small clusters of round balls in the shape of a small cone, about an inch long. Any help would be appreciated.
    Thanks,
    Donna

    1. margaret says:

      Technically you can, but as I understand it it is a VERY long process and involves stratification of the seed over a several-month period at very particular temperatures (meaning you need a temperature-controlled propagation setup) … says University of Delaware and other resources: “Warm stratification is required for 100 days in most sand at 63 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit or for 90 days in moist, acid peat at 32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.”

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know, Ryan, and do not see anything in reference books alerting me to that but of course that goes not mean I would take a bite of any plant or anything. : )

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