Native to Japan, the umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) is one of the oldest trees on earth. Fossil records indicate this species dates back literally millions of years. Scientists now believe that much of the fossil-rich Baltic amber was produced by members of the same family as the umbrella pine. This species is the only remaining member of its family and genus.
In Japan, this tree is referred to as Koya-maki and is considered a sacred tree. Some believe that stroking its whorls will aid in conceiving healthy children. Because of its waterproof qualities and resistance to rot, the wood and bark of this tree have been used for making boats in Japan.
The scientific came of Sciadopitys verticillata, is derived from the prefix “sciado” which means shadow, combined with “pitys,” which means pine. Combined with the Latin adjective of verticillata, which means whorls, it describes this tree quite well.
The common name of the umbrella pine comes from the pattern in which the needles grow. Each branchlet produces a group of needles that fan out in a whorl that resembles the ribs of an open umbrella. It is also sometimes referred to as the Japanese umbrella pine, due to originating from Japan. This is not a species of pine tree though; those are known as Pinus.
Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones
In the United States, the umbrella pine grows best in zones 5 through 8 but must be sheltered from cold if grown in zone 5.
Size and Shape
Umbrella pines are known for their slow growth and take many years to reach their full mature size, which is typically 25 to 40 feet in height and 15 to 20 feet in width. However, it can take more than a hundred years to reach its full height.
As the tree grows taller, it will assume a pyramidal, narrowly conical, or even a spire type of shape. It is not unusual for this species to produce more than one trunk, which impacts the shape it assumes. If multiple trunks are not allowed to grow, the form will remain narrower than if additional trunks are allowed to flourish.
This tree thrives in full sun in an area that is also protected from cold winds in the winter. It does not tolerate air pollution well, and should not be planted where it will be exposed to poor air quality.
As previously described this tree produces whorls of needles at the end of each small branch, giving it an umbrella-like appearance. The needles are dark green and glossy and last for three to four years before dropping.
The umbrella pine produces two- to four-inch seed cones that initially are green in the first year. During the second year, the cones turn brown and produce seeds as they mature. The bark of this tree is reddish-brown and exfoliates in shreds, giving it an interesting and attractive appearance.
Design Tips for the Umbrella Pine
This is such a slow-growing tree that it will not reach its full size during the lifetime of the original owner who plants it. On average a sapling will only reach four to five feet in height by the tenth year of life. They are primarily used as a specimen tree or by those seeking an unusual addition to their yard or garden. Aficionados of Japanese gardens may find this tree of particular interest.
Several cultivars exist that provide interesting options for landscapers. They include:
- 'Aurea' has gold needles, which are greatly prized by collectors.
- 'Pendula' is a rarely found cultivar that produces weeping branches.
- 'Variegata' produces variegated needs of green and yellow.
- 'Wintergreen' grows in a very narrow conical form and produces bright green foliage.
Growing Tips for the Umbrella Pine
Umbrella pines should be planted where it will receive full sun most of the day, but be protected from cold winter winds. Ideal soil conditions are loamy, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic. Once established, the average water is required. However, it is not drought tolerant and should be watered regularly during drought conditions.
Maintenance and Pruning
The slow growth of this tree keeps pruning demands to a minimum. However, if a narrow shape is desired, multiple trunks should be removed in the sapling, to force the growth of a single trunk or central leader.
Pests and Diseases
This species is resistant to wilt and is free of other disease and pest issues.