Then I learned in Phyllis Reynolds’ Trees of Greater Portland (Macrophyllum Press, 2013) that Portland is home to several mature specimens and that I could see this tree in its full glory. Like a kid with a treasure map, I recently visited all four locations she listed and got a whole new perspective on this unusual and fascinating tree.
I visited this pair of trees on Northeast Thompson Street on December 6 and was floored. I’d never seen an umbrella pine taller than 4 or 5 feet, and here were two giants towering over this two-story (plus attic) house. Amazing. However, there was soon to be an unfortunate turn of events.
Three days after I took the previous photo, we had a hellacious storm. A deodar cedar in the neighbor’s yard lost a humongous limb, which—incredibly—missed this house, but stripped several branches off one of the umbrella pines.
She told me that the workers who removed the limb estimated that it weighed 10 tons. The 7-ton crane they brought couldn’t lift it, so they had to carve off pieces with a chainsaw until the crane could heft it out of there.
Looking at it from the street, you don’t really notice the damage, but from the west side you can see the trail of destruction. You also see what happens when a rhododendron breaks the fall of a 10-ton cedar branch. Cedar: 1, Rhododendron: 0.
When I came to, she explained that they hadn’t realized how special they were, but that they had since grown to appreciate them.
She showed me an adorable baby picture of her umbrella pines. The house was built in 1910, and the photo was taken sometime shortly after that, which makes these trees now around 110 years old.
Debi told me that at one time they had an arborist climb this tree and take a limb out, and he had had a “mystical experience” in the tree. She couldn’t quite explain it, but he wasn’t the same person when he came down. He’d trimmed a lot of trees in his day, but this one was somehow magical.
In its native Japan, umbrella pine is called koyamaki. It was once considered one of the “Five Sacred Trees of Kiso (an area near Kyoto),” which common folks were forbidden to cut down.
On Mt. Kiso today, natives buy koyamaki branches to put on loved ones’ graves. They believe that the spirits of their ancestors can return to the world of the living by grabbing onto a koyamaki branch.
Japanese umbrella pine isn’t really a pine at all, but belongs to a family of its own, Sciadopityaceae. A living fossil, like ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), it’s actually much older than either of those youngsters. Umbrella pine has existed for 230 million years—even before the dinosaurs.
It used to be found in North America and Europe; now Japan is the only place it’s found in the wild. If you can’t make it to Japan, this specimen on Northeast 20th Avenue is worth a visit. It’s branched nearly to the ground, and you can stroke the soft foliage and get a good look at it close up.
Umbrella pine gets its name from the way each bunch of evergreen needles is whorled around the stem—like the ribs of an umbrella. True pine needles are bundled into groups of two, three, or five.
The needles are flexible and glossy, and like the leaves of many fir trees, they seem to have been molded out of plastic.
Fun fact: feathery asparagus “leaves” are also cladodes, as are the pads of many cacti, like Opuntia. Unless you want to be insufferable, though, I suggest you do as I do and just call what looks like foliage, foliage. I find other ways to be insufferable.
A Japanese umbrella pine can live for hundreds of years. One 90-foot tree at a Buddhist temple near Kyoto is said to have been worshipped since 1310. It’s believed to possess a female spirit, and people touch the tree in hopes that it will grant their wish for healthy children.
The wood of Sciadopitys is water-resistant and has been used in building boats and bridges. It’s aromatic, too, and at some posh Japanese hotels you might be able to score a luxury suite with a koyamaki bath.
The bark is variable. This tree and Debi’s two trees have showy, shredded-looking, red bark, but the other three trees I saw had more ordinary grayish-tan bark. They’re all about the same age, I would guess.
This umbrella tree, also on Thompson Street, was probably the lushest, healthiest-looking specimen I saw, although it would have been better to not let it develop a double leader, and it was planted a little too close to this mammoth Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).
These two trees on Cornell Road in Northwest Portland were sheared when they were younger but have since grown far too big to maintain that way.
In the original edition of Trees of Greater Portland (Timber Press, 1993), Phyllis Reynolds says that during World War II, some people wanted these trees cut down because they were Japanese trees. That’s even more idiotic than “freedom” fries. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my fellow Americans.
Native to “cloud forests” in the mountains of Japan, umbrella pine likes a mild climate and is hardy to Zone 5. A site offering afternoon shade and protection from wind is ideal.
It does well in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic states, as well as in higher elevations in the Southeast. It obviously enjoys the Pacific Northwest (though we could plant pencils in the ground and expect them to root).
Japanese umbrella pine prefers an acid soil, which is easily accomplished in Portland. My own unamended soil tested out at a pH of 4.6, one notch above battery acid I think.
It grows very slowly, hence the hefty price tags on those peewees I’ve seen in the past. If you get more than 6 inches a year out of a Japanese umbrella pine, you’re doing well. In most cases the tree will top out at around 30 feet high by 15 feet wide, though probably not in your lifetime.
Although you may never get to see it in its full splendor, the young Japanese umbrella pine you buy today will still give you many years of enjoyment. Its unique whorled foliage will add textural drama to your garden like nothing else, and its story will entertain the many people who will ask, “What is it?”
The hardest part is working this splurge-worthy beauty into the budget. But hey, nobody ever died from eating ramen noodles for a month, did they? It’s all a matter of priorities!