Sciadopitys verticillata or Japanese Umbrella pine has long been a curious creature that has excited first time gardeners as well as seasoned plants person. Ranking right up there with such inveterate conifers as Ginkgo and Metasequoia, Sciadopitys has its roots dating back to the upper Triassic period. In other words, dinosaurs were running while these were growing some 230 million years ago. Native to Japan, it is believed that the extent of this extant conifer ran from Eurasia to North America. The common name, Umbrella Pine, refers to the whorls of foliage which resemble the spokes of an umbrella.
Known for its unusual texture, Sciadopitys verticillata, is an extremely slow growing conifer. However, heights of 50-100 feet are obtainable. Perhaps the nicest single specimen I have seen in central New Jersey stands on the front lawn of the Summit Red Cross in Summit on Springfield Avenue. Tucked in among other conifers, this specimen stands well in the shade and has to be every bit of 40+ feet. With a 15 to 20 foot spread, this tree epitomizes this ancient conifer. Sciadopitys is a monotypic genus (a taxon having only one species) that grows tight and pyramidal in its youth while taking on more of an open, pyramidal outline in its winter years. Handsome as a specimen, but not limited to, I have seen container gardening done well with some smaller cultivars. Perhaps my favorite application of this unique conifer has to be a hedge line in Far Hills, New Jersey. Some years ago I was asked to do some consulting work on a private residence and witnessed a 40 foot hedge, some 10 feet tall of Umbrella pine. A vulgar display of wealth that had me dreaming of one day having my own while at the same time inspiring me at the versatility of plant material. Limited only by our own visions, this was truly an enduring impression that has stuck with me all these years.
A coniferous evergreen, Sciadopitys has dark green leaves or needles of two types. Under close examination, the needles appear to be almost fused together. Rich, thick, glossy foliage radiate around the stem in definite whorls, reminding one of an umbrella hence, the name. On larger specimens the bark is an interesting and beautiful attribute. Rich hues of orange and brown punctuate long strips of exfoliating, spongy, cork-like bark. A true tree hugger, I have hugged a huge specimen in Pennsylvania. St. Mary of Providence, located in West Nantmeal Township (the Honey Brook area) is home to a specimen Umbrella pine. The facility is a retirement home and retreat center for Catholic Church activities and is owned and operated by the archdiocese of Philadelphia. Some years ago John Stella, a brilliant plantsman and friend, took me there after tagging our spring deciduous trees at a nearby nursery. A true gentlemen whose tutelage has broadened my appreciation for plants while simultaneously forging a long term friendship.
Other notable attributes of this long lived conifer include, a non aggressive root system, little, if any potential pest problems and virtually no maintenance. This tree requires very little pruning to develop itself. While it seems to prefer adequate sunlight, as mentioned previously, the specimen in Summit, New Jersey is performing admirably in large amounts of shade. Highly adaptive to soil types, Sciadopitys seems to perform well in clay, loam, sand and well drained soil.
Perhaps the only shortcoming to owning one of these unique conifers is the cost. Slower growth and difficulties to propagate are the answers for its price tag. Once rooted however, the likelihood of its survival is in your favor. With container gardening continuing to be on the rise, several smaller cultivars are becoming more widely available. ‘Joe Kozey’ is a more fastigiate type, withstanding snow loads better because of its more sturdy branches. ‘Mitsch Select’ has shorter dark green needles and a more compact stature. ‘Sternschnuppe’ has all its characteristics more thick in appearance. Finally, you knew there had to be gold and variegated types out there as well. ‘Aurea’ and ‘Ann Haddow’ are their names.
While there is still some discrepancy as to which family Sciadopitys belongs to, listed both as Pinaceae and Taxodiaceae, there is no ambiguity as to how well Umbrella pine will perform for you. Adaptive to soil types, sunlight amounts and its reluctance to grow quickly make this a suitable candidate for almost anywhere. Couple these attributes with the increasing flavors available for smaller container gardening and Umbrella pine’s rubbery texture will have everyone marveling at its unique beauty.