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Tall tree can also be tiny

This article was first published on 19 Jun 2013.

Sciadopitys verticillata

Sciadopitys verticillata

Sciadopitys verticillata is a unique conifer.  It is the only species of its genus and the single member of the plant family Sciadopityaceae.   Not closely related to any other plants, it has distinctive foliage, setting it apart from other conifers.

Fossil records date back 230 million years, making the extant tree a living fossil.  Now endemic to Japan, fossils show it once grew in North America and Eurasia.

The common name, Japanese umbrella pine, refers to the way the leaves are arranged in whorls around the branches, looking like the spokes of an umbrella.  Small cones on the end of the branches and soft brown, peeling bark contrast against the foliage.

Sciadopitys is a very slow growing evergreen conifer, making it suitable for home gardens.  In cultivation, there isn’t usually more than 1.5 metres of growth in the first 10 years.  It will eventually grow to 35 metres in its wild habitat but much less in cultivation.  A narrow conical shape when young, it tends to open up with age.

Grow in moist but free draining soils with plenty of sun or in partial shade.  It prefers soils that are slightly acidic so will grow very well in Dunedin soils.  Tolerant of frosts, it reportedly survives temperatures down to -30 degrees C.

Suitable for a number of garden situations, it is best grown as a specimen in the border or lawn.  It is also commonly used as a bonsai.

At Dunedin Botanic Garden you can see a couple of specimens near the Otaru Teien, beside the duck pond.

Stephen Bishop is curator of the Otaru Teien at Dunedin Botanic Garden.