A Garden of Japanese Umbrella Pine

By Dana Behar

Learn about the prized ornamental tree of the Japanese umbrella pine.

Conifer close up of a Japanese umbrella pine in the garden
Conifer close up of a Japanese umbrella pine in the garden

About 25 years ago, a young graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, Lorens Fasano, had the opportunity to buy 550 saplings at a local nursery that was going out of business. Knowing the rarity of the species, Lorens purchased all of the trees, which he carefully planted nearby, on the 82-acre property of his parents, in rural New Jersey.

Some 25 years later, Lorens has what is believed to be the largest collection of mature specimens of this species in North America. The species in question is Sciadopitys verticillata (Japanese umbrella pine), kôyomaki in Japanese. It is not actually a pine, but is, in fact, one of the rarest and most unusual conifers in the world.

It is also one of the earliest conifers, dating back to the Triassic period. S. verticillata lived before the existence of dinosaurs. Originally comprising a wide variety of species with a habitat spreading across continents, Japanese umbrella pines became virtually extinct. The geographic range of the trees has at present been reduced to just two isolated areas in Japan, with the diversity becoming limited to a single species.

Conifer Anatomy of the Japanese umbrella pine

Japanese umbrella pine derives its common name from the whorls of needles that grow at the end of its branches and that mimic the spokes of an umbrella. The heavily needled branches cover the tree in a cloak of green. The needles are of the richest shade of green, soft, round, and waxy to the point that they look almost like plastic.

The needles grow 2-5 inches in length in whorls of 20-30 and contrast elegantly with the bark, which is thick, soft, orange-brown, and stringy. The needles are actually photosynthetic flattened stems, called cladodes. Japanese umbrella pines are extremely slow-growing, typically taking up to 100 years to reach a full height of 25-40 feet.

Now considered a living fossil, it is a genetic orphan, the only remaining member of the family Sciadopityaceae, of the genus Sciadopitys. The tree is found in Japan on the Nara Peninsula of Shikoku Island and in the mountains northeast of Nagoya on Honshu Island. Kôyamaki is one of the five trees of Kiso that are treated as sacred in Japan.

Lorens Fasano with one of his umbrella pines from his conifer garden collection
Lorens Fasano with one of his umbrella pines from his conifer garden collection

A Valued Garden Conifer

Historically, its spicy-scented, water-resistant wood was highly valued for making boats, and its bark, in the form of oakum, for caulking. Now listed as vulnerable, it is too rare to be used as anything other than a highly prized ornamental and is found in many of the leading gardens of the world.

Fast forward to 2019. Lorens Fasano now has 340 mature Japanese umbrella pines on the property his mother owns. Lorens is trying to find new homes for these trees, as the 82-acre property needs to be sold. Although he had not previously been active in marketing the umbrella pines, his trees have been sought after and can be found at Brooklyn Botanical Garden and Hudson Yards in New York, NY, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, and Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, PA.

Lorens has lovingly cared for these trees for over 25 years and is determined to find good homes for the rest. The trees are being offered to colleges and universities, botanical gardens, Japanese gardens, and landscape architects. Those interested in learning more about these trees may contact Dana at: [email protected] or visit www.umbrellapines.com.

Notes from Ron Elardo and Dave Olszyk

Here are some interesting facts about Sciadopitys verticillata (Japanese umbrella pine):

  • The botanical name for the tree comes from ancient Greek: σκιά (skiá), English translation: “shadow”; and pitys, (Πίτυς), English translation: “pine”. The epithet, verticillata, means “with whorls”. This suggests that the “shadow pine” is naturally an understory plant.
  • Its Japanese name is コウヤマキ(kôyamaki). An image of the tree is on the crest of Prince Hisahito Akishino, currently the third in line to the Chrysanthemum Throne.
  • Japanese umbrella pine dates from 230 million years ago. According to fossil records, its range included the Baltic Coast of Europe. Chemical and fluorescent analyses of its resin link it to Baltic amber, created from the sap of the tree being fossilized and then washing up onto the coasts of Baltic Coast countries, such as Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Russia.
  • Amber “stones” were traded by both the Romans and, then, later, by the Vikings. Many times amber (called in German Bernstein) has inclusions with insects and plants preserved in it. Such stones are highly prized.
  • Near St. Petersburg, Russia, there once was an Amber Room in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo. It was dismantled and stolen by the Army Group North of Nazi Germany in the siege of St. Petersburg. After World War II, Russian craftsmen spent decades reconstructing the Amber Room with donations from The Federal Republic of Germany. In 2003, the Amber Room was rededicated in the Catherine Palace.
  • The original Amber Room was considered an “Eighth Wonder of the World” and had been given as a gift to Russian Tsar Peter the Great by King Friedrich I of Prussia in 1716.
  • German researchers believe they have found the stolen Amber Room in the Berlin City Palace (Das Stadtschloss), which itself has been reconstructed and rededicated on the Museum Island (die Museuminsel), in central Berlin.

Photographs by Dana Behar.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Conifer Quarterly. Join the American Conifer Society to access our extensive library of conifer-related articles and connect to a nationwide group of plant lovers! Become a member for only $40 a year and get discounts with our growing list of participating nurseries in our Nursery Discount Program.