Last updated on January 26, 2023
On my tree tours of the Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH, I usually include a stop at the Japanese Umbrella Pine, one of the many unusual ornamentals. I made a new, to me, discovery yesterday when observing the specimen I usually point out and then contrasting the features with another specimen I hadn’t noticed before on my walk home from campus.
The tree is named umbrella because the whorls of needles resemble the ribs on an umbrella.
This conifer, Sciadopitys verticillata, is endemic to Japan and not a true pine. Geologically the tree is older than the Ginko.
A stylized representation of the tree (known in Japanese as kōyamaki) is used as the Japanese Imperial crest or emblem.
The tree is reported to have no insect pests.
The species is from an ancient family and is found in the fossil record from the upper Triassic (up to 230 million years ago) throughout Eurasia and North America. The species is now found only in Japan, where it is a cultural icon.
Genetic research has revealed the tree is a distinct and separate entity, with some wanting to elevate its classification to the status of Order.
What look like needles are called ‘cladodes,’ which appear and perform like needles, but are made up of stem tissues, one of the clues of its ancient lineage.
The bark is orange to reddish brown and is shaggy.
This tree not only has an English and Latin name but also a Japanese name: koyamaki. In an area in Japan known as Mt. Kiso, locals put koyamaki branches on the graves of their loved ones because they believe that these branches can lead spirits back to the land of the living. The koyamaki is a coniferous evergreen that only grows wildly in two areas of Japan. Originally, the tree populated North America, Europe, and Asia but became extinct in Europe during one of the glacial periods. It is known as a living fossil, in that it has inhabited the earth for at least 230 million years. The species has been around since the Jurassic Period, and its image serves as the crest for Prince Hisahito of Akishino, who is third in line to become emperor of Japan. The trees prefer to live in moist, acidic soils in direct sunlight, and they can grow to heights as high as 27 meters. In the United States, however, they typically do not exceed nine meters in height. Often, an individual tree can survive for over one hundred years. These trees tend to be expensive and hard to purchase, since they grow so slowly. The tree is the only member of the sciadopityaceae family.
Japanese umbrella pines are monecious and reproduce by means of cones. Cones are analogous to flowers. Male cones produce pollen and grow up to about three centimeters. They are typically found on lower branches of the tree and grow in bundles. Female cones store eggs and act as seeds, protecting pollenated zygotes. The female cones start out as green but turn brown in their second year of life. They grow from six to eleven centimeters long and take about 18 months to mature. They are thick and bulky and develop in older trees on higher branches, with one cone per whorl.
Usually, male and female pine cones are born on the same tree. Typically, the male cones, which produce pollen, are located on the lower branches of the tree. This is to prevent the pollen from falling on the female cones of the same tree.
The needles of this tree are numerous, covering the tree in a cloud of green. The photosynthetic needles grow in whorls, so they resemble the spokes at the top of an umbrella. Each whorl holds 20-30 pine needles. Its needles are usually soft, round, and waxy and almost resemble plastic. The wax allows the leaves to retain water and also protects the tree from UV radiation. The needles are a rich green color and typically grow between two and four inches long. If you look closely, you can see that each needle is actually made up of two needles that have grown together. The needles are not actually the real leaves of the tree. They are known as cladodes, small photosynthetic stems. Instead, the leaves are small and brown, resemble scales, and grow closely against the branches, just below the whorls of cladodes. Leaves typically survive for about three years.
Check out the new immature female green cones, next to the mature brown cones.
1. Japanese Umbrella Pine/ Yale Nature Walk, https://naturewalk.yale.edu/…/japanese-umbrella-pine-27