most asked-about: japanese umbrella pine

japanese umbrella pine 3
MOST WEEKS I GET AT LEAST ONE COMMENT OR EMAIL–sometimes many more–about my beloved Japanese umbrella pine, one of two plants that traveled with my belongings in the moving van when I first bought this house as a fixer-upper weekend project 25 years ago. That’s it at the axis of the photo above, behind my house. Thanks to the magic of search engines, gardeners in far-reaching spots read about my big old plant, and wonder if I can help them with theirs. When I hear the troubles people are having, I shudder: How in the world did I get so lucky, and what if I hadn’t?

I knew nothing at all when I heaved the then-very-rare, chest-high young Sciadopitys verticillata out of the ground in the borough of Queens in New York City, and plopped it unceremoniously into a bushel basket for the trip several hours north. I picked a spot for it when there was nothing but one giant rhododendron alone in the middle of the yard behind the house, connected to nothing. I made the umbrella pine its companion, and hoped they would get along.

There was no back porch then (and therefore no stepping stones leading to it); there was no nothing but unmown grass and wild raspberries tangled throughout it, and my youthful enthusiasm. The house was a wreck; the back foundation, in fact–perhaps 15 or 20 feet from where this most beautiful of conifers now stands about 20 feet tall–had collapsed, and a swath of plastic sheeting was all that formed the barrier between outside and in below ground level.

Today, as spring gives way to summer begrudgingly, leaving spoiled flowers to clean up and not much at “peak” form to admire–as it rains for another day with a couple more really wet ones still ahead–rather than wish for anything else like fewer to-do’s on the stalled list, or more bloom somewhere, I’ll do this instead:

Say thank you to my Japanese umbrella pine for holding up to 25 winters of uneasy snow loads and countless ice storms; not suffering winterburn in the spot I chose with no particular knowledge of the plant’s needs or the garden’s future direction; for settling in without so much as losing a needle (which apparently isn’t always the case as you can tell from the comments on this plant profile I did some time ago). For looking handsome every single day of all those years.

I took its picture, all wet and moody (those are drops of rain on the top photo!), to just say hallelujah for its being here with me to this day. Sometimes, just sometimes, we have enduring successes in this funniest of pursuits called gardening, in spite of the heroic odds.

  1. Kristi says:

    So reassuring to see what you can make of a landscape with a little persistence. We just planted a maple that sprouted from seed last year. Its about 12 inches tall this year…lets hope the garden grows around it (and I’m still here to see it :).

  2. Your Japanese umbrella pine is gorgeous and a worthy subject for adoration and thankfulness. I’m also interested in the big-leafed plant on the left side of the top photo; what is it? Thanks…as always for this lovely, lovely and helpful blog.

  3. Broken Barn Industries says:

    Spoiled flowers. You nailed it. Mine are coming and going so fast this year. Total bummer. I NEED to feel the sun on my skin!

  4. Nickie Skoog says:

    A bit off the subject…. But what is that beautiful broadleaf plant on the bottom left? I have been looking for a plant similar to that to put over my pond.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Nickie. It’s a naughty plant I planted more than 20 years ago, when it was slightly chic and before it was thought of as a pest because it spreads so effective underground. It’s Petasites japonicus, or Petasites japonicus var. giganteus, or Petasites x hybridus or who knows what it’s called at the moment (every seems to disagree), common name Japanese butterbur or in Japan called fuki, but you could get a bold effect from a less spreading large-leaved plant in the shade such as Astilboides tabularis perhaps (not as tall, but bold, and a lighter green). Another point of view on the Petasites is here. I love the plant, but I have to say that it will walk a mile.

    2. TheCaptive says:

      It reminds me of a plant I have THE BEAR’S BREECHES plant. I was calling it a Bear Claw but it is the B.Breeches. They come up all over the place (Central Valley ,CA).

  5. Janeen says:

    Margaret, you don’t harvest pine nuts from this, do you?

    And also — as a story idea — since you’re so passionate about pesto (me too) and it’s that time of year, have you ever experienced “pine mouth syndrome.” It’s well documented on the web (various news sites, FDA, Dr. Weil, NIH) and harmless, but a BIG bummer. I ate some offending pine nuts from a purveyor of organic foods and am just toward the end of it.

    In case it’s new to you, here’s a somewhat funny, but informative take on the subject:

  6. Teresa says:

    5 years ago I bought mine at the IES sale in Millbrook (back when they had sales). I had no idea what it was but was looking for an interesting dwarf tree to put in front of my house and fell in love with it. It was $35 and about 18 inches tall. The IES people told me it was very slow growing and would stay small for a long time.


    So obviously I knew nothing about it. I just read your older post and I guess the reason mine has thrived is that the house has protected it from wind and midday sun. Needless to say it’s now over 10 feet tall and as still growing strong. The only problem we have with it is that the deer come right up to the house and munch on it in winter but diligent application of Liquid Fence deterred them all winter. The first spring we watched the growth we thought it had some disease due to all the leaves on the actual bark as you describe.

    Mine has never produced cones….?

    I guess I am wondering if I should move it since I don’t think I want a 30 ft tree in front of my living room window. Yet….it’s so beautiful and happy I am terrified to upset it and after reading your posts I realize it truly may be unhappy elsewhere….what to do?

  7. Teresa says:

    Question about the Astilboides tabularis: do the deer bother it? Thank you for posting about it….I have been coveting it for a while without knowing what it was called!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Teresa. I have a deer fence so I do not know. In the years prior, they ate things nearby like hostas more than this, but I don’t have enough experience with them in the bed with the Astilboides to be sure.

  8. Cathy says:

    What am I doing wrong? I have a Japanese umbrella tree my sister gave to me and I really do like it. I have had the tree since May. It has done well, but now the outside needles are starting to get brown. The inside needles are still green, but I fear I may be losing it. I live in NC and the weather has been plenty wet here, but not exceedingly so. Any ideas? Thanks!!!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Cathy. Tip dieback usually worries me, yes. I don’t know what’s causing the issue, but stress from transplant or other environmental issues as it has been trying to settle in can certainly cause a conifer to sulk and even show damage. The stress of high heat/too much sun before it’s settled into its new home (before it roots are fully put down, meaning the plant is more vulnerable the first year or even two) can also be the culprit. I’d watch and wait, to see if the branch tips become brittle and die, or if it just dropped needles. Don’t feed; keep it watered.

  9. Kathy says:

    Hi Margaret . . . . I was also told my umbrella pine would only grow 5ft., I planted the young pine in 2003, now 9 years later it’s 15ft tall’ Since I planted it between the condo & the sidewalk in front of my condo, I’m now worried about its roots disturbing either the foundation or the sidewalk. I’m so afraid to transplant it tho’ as I feel it’s a fragile species. I don’t want to lose it, but fear it may outgrow its location. Advice??

    1. margaret says:

      Oh, my, Kathy, definitley more than 5 feet in every direction!:) Mine is next to a small inground water garden lined with thick rubber and no root has ever poked into the pool in 20+ years, I can tell you. Beyond that I do not know for certain.Is there enough room for it to be 15 feet wide at the base when it matures, without blocking the sidewalk?

    2. Jodie says:

      Please help me. Our Japanese Umbrella is huge – about 17 feet. It is too close to the house and the peak is now touching two roof lines in a corner where they meet. It completely covers a long tall window and shows no sign of stopping. It is beautiful and healthy and will need to be cut down if I don’t shorten it. Transplanting is too dangerous for my foundation, walls, window and roofline as the equipment to be used could damage any or all mentioned. Do I let it continue to grow and then chop when it gets too big? or do I do something now to let it live?
      Please advise,

      1. margaret says:

        Hi, Jodie. There is no “right” answer here because what is needed is to adapt the grown tree to a situation (one or the other) that it won’t really adapt to happily — I mean, it’s either cut it down, or top it, right? Neither is very good, but dead is probably worse! Do you have any skilled arborists nearby who could at least try to make a smart cut and perhaps even try to train a remaining piece to act as a fake leader after the beheading? I don’t know how many trunks your tree has or its shape but sometimes really skilled pruners can at least choose cuts that make thing a little less awful. Again: It’s not meant to be topped, and won’t look great…but maybe it doesn’t have to be just hacked off before some evaluation and discussion?

  10. Robert Farrell says:

    Hi … fun to read about your Japanese Umbrella Pine…I have one in my Carroll Gardens Bklyn backyard which is doing beautifully..of course too big for here but I did’nt know anything about it when I bought it from the nursery in a pot. T had in in a pot for a long time and it was healty but didnt grow as soon as I put it in the ground it took off now 9 feet tall grows about 18″ every summer. I saw one at the Westbury Garden House which first clued me in to how big it will get. The one there is far taller then the 30′ …I think closer to 45′

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Robert. It’s such a great plant. Mine hasn’t gone beyond 20-something feet in 25 years here, a few years prior in the ground at my first garden, and of course years and years at the nursery before I bought it about waist-high. But who knows what it will do next!

  11. Debbie says:

    Hi, Margaret:
    I too have a beautiful Japanese Umbrella Pine specimen. It has survived and flourished after many New England winters. It was planted 20 years ago and is well established. Although all info that I have read says that there are no serious pests or diseases that are problematic, I am concerned. I recently noted a white substance on the lower needles. I cannot tell what it is. Do you have any thoughts or have you heard of similar situations? If it is treatable, I would like to get started right away. The tree is one of the gems in my garden. It would be tragic to loose it.

    1. margaret says:

      They are pretty bullet-proof as far as pests and diseases, but I wonder if you have an outbreak of some kind of scale insect (follow link). Do you know what mealy bug looks like too? (You said “white” so I am thinking of white pests; not that I have heard that these affect umbrella pine particularly.)

  12. ray says:

    I have a japanese umbrella tree for about 15 years. I too was one of the first plants I bought.
    Unfortunatley it has out grown the spot it is in.
    When is the best time to transplant.

    Thanks very much

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Ray. I don’t know because they are said to be tricky to transplant, and I have only done it that once (which was in September, or early fall here) when I brought mine here from my old garden. If the tree is big, which it sounds as if it is, I’d hire the best woody-plant nursery nearby to do the move for you.

  13. Katherine says:

    I have a beautiful Japanese umbrella tree which has thrived in its location for the past seven years. It is about 15 ft tall. A few weeks ago it began to die back from the top but looks perfectly healthy otherwise. I’m afraid I’m going to lose it. Any advice?

  14. Mary says:

    Hi, 2 questions I hope you can answer.
    1) Is it possible to trim back a too-large umbrella pine? What are the pruning instructions?
    2) One of my two large umbrella pines has a problem – the needles go yellow on the whole branch, then brown and the branch has to be removed, damaging the beautiful shape of the tree. Any idea what is going on? Does it need acid added to the soil?
    I’m in zone 7 and the trees get sun most of the day.
    Any advice will be most appreciated!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mary. I only have “pinched” mine once, meaning removed the new “candles” or fresh growth when they are still tender, right when it is pushing out, the way you might pinch an annual to keep it bushy. Beyond that, ,proceed at your own risk — I have never cut into the wood of one to try to reshape it substantially.

      Your sick plant does not sound like a soil pH problem, no. I don’t know when the yellowing begins, and whether it is from the inside out or tip back, or what.

  15. Clementine Zawadzki says:

    Re: umbrella pine. My garden club does a centerpiece-making meeting for Thanksgiving/Christmas. Because my umbrella pine is so big (upstate NY, zone 4b) I’ve been bringing trimmings to the meeting every 3 years. What we’ve found is that keeping the centerpiece watered allows the greens to stay alive till around April. Not everyone wants to trim their pine this much, but the resulting centerpieces are wonderful.

  16. Gayle says:

    I bought a 12′ tall umbrella pine last year. It was extremely healthy. We had a brutal summer with heat in NE last year and I was gone for five weeks of it. Someone came by and watered it a bit. I think he actually watered it too much. The bottom needles started to turn brown and fall off. That has continued this spring and is still happening. The top half of the tree and what is left of the bottom branches are thriving with dark green lush needles. The bottom is naked and the top is great. Do you know what happened and what I can do to return it to it’s former overall beauty?
    Thank you,

    1. margaret says:

      Hi Gayle. They can be tricky to acclimate, and a 12-footer especially (versus a smaller one) would be very vulnerable to transplant shock, I would think, especially in a very dry season like last year in the NE. They are intolerant of dry soils, that’s for certain, and such a large transplant probably would have needed thorough watering more than once a week in such conditions (I don’t know when you planted it and how long it had been in the ground before your trip or before the drought began etc.). I don’t think there is any remedy except to see if it stabilizes and is still something you like the look of (it won’t get its lower branches back). Did a nursery plant it?

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