Horticulture Highlight: Sciadopitys verticillata
All afternoon there has been a chirping of birds.
And the sun lies, warming and still, on the Western sides of puffed branches.
There is no wind,
Even the little twigs at the ends of the branches do not move,
And the needles of the pines are solid,
Bands of inarticulated blackness,
Against the blue-white sky.
When is a pine not a pine? Sciadopitys verticillata the Japanese umbrella pine actually is not botanically a pine. It is not even classified within the pine family Pinaceae but rather is found in its own family, the Sciadopityaceae. Common name confusion aside this is a true “connoisseur’s choice” conifer.
The distinctive lustrous bright green 3 to 5 inch-long needles are many times wider and thicker than pine needles. Upon close inspection each needle is really two needles fused together at the center. These needles are arranged around the stem in whorls of 10 to 30 radiating like the unopened ribs of a parasol. The growth habit is often a dense pyramid which holds its lower branches creating an effect that horticulturist Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930) termed an “unmistakable aristocrat of ancient lineage.”
The Japanese umbrella pine has a history going back to the dinosaurs, with paleobotanists dating fossils to 230 million years ago. Native to the forests of southern Japan it was first described to Europeans by Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) in his 1784 Flora Japonica. Half a century later the 1842 work by German-born Phillip Franz von Siebold (1796-1866) also titled Flora Japonica attracted the attention of notable American botanist Asa Gray (1810-1888, Lot 3904 Holly Path). Gray famously referred to Siebold’s work in his research of plant geography that supported pre-publication Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) On the Origin of Species.
On your next visit to Mount Auburn look for our Japanese umbrella pines found growing opposite the administration office, on Lawn Avenue, Central Avenue, Willow Avenue, Story Road, and Meadow Road among other locations.
*This Horticulture Highlight was originally published in the December 2010 issue of the Friends of Mount Auburn electronic newsletter.