Cryptomeria japonica, Japanese cedar
a powerful wind embraces
the ancient cedars
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), recognized as the greatest master of haiku, was likely referring to Cryptomeria japonica, Japanese cedar. Unrelated to true cedars (Cedrus), Cryptomeria is an evergreen conifer that frequently grows into a 50-60-foot-tall, graceful, stately, and handsome tree. Its ¼-3/4-inch-long, awl-shaped, needles are often curving inwards towards the stem. The ½-1-inch globular cones are made of 20-30 scales which each are distinctly toothed.
Cryptomeria is the national tree of Japan. Within Japan, there often is a reverence towards these trees, perhaps analogous to how people view giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) in the United States. In southern Japan, on Yakushima Island, there is an aged forest growing these trees that in 1993 was declared one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. There, some Cryptomeria are publicly claimed to be 7200 years old, although respected dendrochronologists find no evidence of that folklore-like age. However, Cryptomeria with ages of 1400 to 1700-years-old, have been documented from tree ring counts from stumps at Yakushima, so ages of 2000 years, and over are believed to be possible.
Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930), renowned plantsman, plant explorer, and author, offered these personal observations in his 1916 book, The Conifers and Taxads of Japan, “…The Cryptomeria, or Sugi as it is called in Japan, is the noblest of the Japanese conifers and many famous places in Japan owe much of their charm to stately avenues and groves of this impressive tree. There is a solemnity and a dignity about it, with its perfectly straight trunk towering heavenward and topped with a conical dark green crown, as befits a tree used for enshrouding temples, shrines and sacred places generally. The famous and well-known avenues at Nikko, said to be the humble gift of a Daimyo poor in worldly goods, is the most magnificent of all the monuments raised to the memory of the first Shogun. Although much less well known, there are in different parts of Japan many avenues and groves of Cryptomeria with larger trees than those at Nikko.… The finest tree I saw, and probably the largest in all of Japan, is in the grounds of a temple at Sugi, a village in Tosa province, Shikoku, which measures 160-feet in height and 80-feet in girth. It is in perfect health, though the top has been broken off by storms and formerly its height was 40-feet more than it is now. At the shrine of Jimmu-Tenno, the first Emperor, at Sano in Osumi province, Kyushu, there is a fine avenue of Cryptomeria planted some 500 years ago, the trees being from 160 to 190-feet tall and from 10 to 20-feet in girth. On the Kasuga-yama at Nara there are trees from 130 to 160-feet tall and from 30-40-feet in girth of trunk. In the park and temple grounds, too, at Nara are many magnificent Cryptomerias. The most impressive avenue I saw is that on Koya-san on the borders of Yamato and Kii provinces, which I was told was planted by one Ogo Shonin, a priest, about 650 years ago. This avenue is more than a mile long and the trees range from 130 to 160-feet in height and …I believe … that they surpass in grandeur any other trees planted by man in the world.”
Although strongly associated with Japan, Cryptomeria also is native to eastern China, and it was from there that Robert Fortune (1812-1880), plant collector for the Horticultural Society of London, sent the first recorded Cryptomeria seeds to England in 1844. Fortune also sent the first known seeds of Cryptomeria to the United States in 1858. Both continents from those times on have been adding this beautiful conifer to enhance countless landscapes.
On your next visit to Mount Auburn, look for two of our outstanding specimens on Oxalis Path at Auburn Lake. View another fine Cryptomeria on Garden Avenue, near our administration building, as well as a few more Cryptomeria found throughout our landscape.