3. Japanese Umbrella Pine
Sciadopitys verticillata: Japanese Umbrella Pine
Along with its physical beauty, Umbrella Pine is one of Japan’s five sacred trees.
In Japan, Sciadopitys verticillata is known as “Koya-maki”. According to the United States Forest Services, “Due to
the unusual nature of the plant, people either love this tree or won’t even look
Japanese Umbrella Pine provides a glimpse into the pre-historic world and also provides a glimpse into Japanese history. In the Kyoto Prefecture, Sciadopitys verticillata is designated the “official tree.” Umbrella Pine has a lengthy association with temples in this area. Evidence suggests that an Umbrella Pine was the center of worship in Kyoto roughly a thousand years ago. In 1310, the area around the sacred tree was converted into a Buddhist temple, and the tree was absorbed into Buddhist prayers. The symbol of the Buddhist temple was that of a fertile woman. The marrying of these two symbols is present in local tradition. In Japan (specifically Kyoto), the whorls of the Umbrella Pine are stroked in hopes of conceiving healthy children. The area where the original Umbrella Pine (Koya-maki) stood still exists today as a national monument.
The Umbrella Pine is the only remaining species in this genus. Millions of years ago, many more Umbrella-like species existed, as revealed by fossil records. The only species that survived is the variety native exclusively to Japan. The native environment of Sciadopitys verticillata is the exclusive ecosystems of the islands of Japan. Previous to the ice ages, a variety of umbrella species existed in much of the northern hemisphere, including Europe. As the Ice Age began to set in, ice bridges allowed animals and plant life to spread from the Eurasian continent to the Japanese islands. Danish botanists suggest that the third ice age was too much to bear for the majority of Umbrella Pine species. Perhaps warmed by its volcanic activity, the islands of Japan were able to sustain the only remaining umbrella species, which would become Sciadopitys verticillata. Currently, Japanese Umbrella Pine prefers acidic soils that are well drained. It can grow in shade, part-shade or full sun, but prefers part-shade. Umbrella Pine is often associated with the fertile Kiso Valley, which lays in the shade of active volcanoes, between Osaka and Tokyo. This valley is renowned for its biologically distinct characteristics which give rise to many Japanese-specific flora. Due to the rarity of this species, Umbrella Pines tend to self-pollinate. This lack of genetic diversity has weakened the species outside of its native Japan. If Sciadopitys verticillata is desired for a garden or landscape, a cutting-clone or genetically engineered seed will more likely give rise to a healthy plant. Because of its rarity, sluggish growth-rate and tendency to be genetically weak, Japanese Umbrella Pine is considered to be non-invasive in the United States.
Sciadopitys verticillata is one of those species that is valuable in its own right. This tree represents
the only existing species of the Umbrella family. While it does not have much industrial
or pharmaceutical value currently, its use as a point of references by dendrologists
and ethno botanists is extremely useful. In Japan, the wood of the “Koya-maki” is
specially used for boats, due to its naturally waterproof and rot-resistant qualities.
The bark is made into oakum, which is used in ship building as well.
The species is considered “at risk” and may soon only be found in arboretums, museums or laboratories.
The Umbrella Pine has the ability to grow to a maximum height of 30 meters, but this
height is rare. In the continental United States, this tree rarely exceeds 30 feet
in height even after a 100-year lifespan. While the Umbrella Pine is an evergreen,
its classification as a pine is somewhat misleading. Sciadopitys verticillata has a beautiful, unique structure that makes it a prized ornamental.
Sciadopitys verticillata has showy bark that easily distinguishes this species. The trunk is defined by scale-like leaves that lay on top of the reddish-brown bark. These scaly leaves alternate along the branches as well. The wood of Umbrella Pine is water-resistant, and aromatic. The scent is often described as “pungent” or “spicy.” The branches tend to droop, lying against the ground if not preventatively pruned. The needles of the Umbrella Pine are arranged in whorls that resemble parasols. This needles formation lends itself to the generation of the tree’s common name. Sciado, in Greek means shadow (or umbrella) and pitys generally refers to a fir or pine. Because of the presence of two kinds of leaves on the same tree, botanists disagree on whether the “needles” are modified leaves or modified shoots. Regardless of their botanical distinction, it is obvious why these needles lend their name to the species. Around a central point at the end of a shoot, 11-30 needles whorl around in an unmistakable umbrella-like shape. Each needle is 6-11 cm in length, 2-3 mm in width and can live on the same tree for 3-4 years. The appearance of the individual “parasol” is what gives this species its charm as an ornamental.