Sugi: A Revered Conifer in Japan


With the holidays quickly approaching, there is a sense of urgency to decorate and adorn our homes. While Christmas trees are a small part of the holiday season, the selection of tree types is enormous. The popular candidates are Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri), Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), Grand Fir (Abies grandis), Noble Fir (Abies procera), White Fir (Abies concolor), Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmanniana), Colorado Spruce (Picea pungens) and Norway spruce (Picea abies). While these are all attractive Christmas trees most are also used for privacy screens and shade trees in our landscapes. Another Mega Conifer to consider for our landscapes is the very versatile Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese Cedar).

Today’s academics still list Cryptomeria as part of the Taxodiaceae family. Grouped with the likes of Metasequoia (Dawn Redwood), Sequoia and Sequoiadendron (Coast Redwoods and Giant Redwoods) as well as Sciadopitys (Umbrella Pine) to name a few. However, just as Sciadopitys is listed a few ways, also in the Pinaceae family, so to is Cryptomeria being pushed towards the Cupressaceae family (Cypress family). A discussion for the academics, there is no denying the vast potential of this conifer. Those who are introduced to Cryptomeria for the first time are usually enamored with its rope-like foliage, which is blue-green and rubbery to the touch. A broad pyramidal tree as an older specimen, Cryptomeria japonica can reach heights of 50-70 feet high by 20-30 feet wide. However, “Jomon Sugi” one of the largest specimens of Cryptomeria or Sugi known, found on the island of Yakushima, Japan, stands a mere 26.1 meters tall and is said to date back almost 3000 years. Sugi incidentally is the vernacular name for Cryptomeria in Japan and is quickly becoming adapted elsewhere. Other distinguishing attributes of this majestic conifer include bark which is reddish-brown, peeling in long strips, cones which are terminal and somewhat round and an ability to grow in a range of soil types. Sugi prefers sun to part shade and appreciates shelter from high winds. This easy to grow superstar fills out quickly and can be useful as a hedge/screen or specimen. One of the few conifers that will coppice (sprout back from cut stumps) you can cut back aggressively and rejuvenate older, overlooked trees. Look for purple-bronze overtones in the winter as well.

Native to Japan and arguably southern China, Cryptomeria has a plethora of cultivars to choose from. Cryptomeria j. ‘Black Dragon’ has a vigorous growth spurt early on and then slowly fills out to an appreciable 10-15 feet in as many years. Light green new growth ages to one of the darkest greens for all Sugi’s and is maintained in the winter. ‘Mignone’ has caught the attention of many people including my dear friends Mitch Krause and Jessica Cordts who recently bought out a collection and mass planted them around a Trochodendron tree. Monochromatic gardening at its best! ‘Mignone’ sports rope-like branchlets and has an overall dense appearance. This suitable dwarf cultivar eventually matures to an upright broad conifer. ‘Sekkan’ is an upright conifer with sulfur yellow markings. A quick growing cultivar adds a punctuation of color to any garden. A personal favorite is ‘Rein’s Dense Jade’. Unusual texture and jade green markings, this cultivar in more fastigiate than it is pyramidal. The needles are held tightly to the stem and the winter helps offer purple-bronze markings. There are 54 planted at our house in a hedge form creating a skeletal backdrop for a large garden room. Unprotected from the winter, they stand on the north, south, east and west ends and are glorious. Finally, ‘Vilmoriniana’ can fit into anyone’s garden. Pointed short needles lead you from green to a purple-bronze in the winter. A dwarf form that is dense and globose at maturity.

Sugi (Cryptomeria) the national tree of Japan is so revered in its native land that not only does it have its own stamp but it is often planted around temples and is part of sacred grounds. One notable house of worship is the Shrine at Ise, Japan. A Shinto shrine to the goddess Amaterasu omikami it is set within ancient forests of giant Cryptomeria. A name derived from the Greek kryptos (hidden) and meros (part) certainly contradicts and reveals much of itself. A conifer with bright green new growth, purple-bronze markings in the winter and bark that is reddish-pink in color and slightly scented, truly is a conifer for all seasons. Now, if we could only get them as a cut Christmas tree…that would be something.