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What’s That Oddball Conifer? A Japanese Umbrella Pine.

If you can get around the issue of patient confidentiality, my psychiatrist will tell you I have shamanic dreams — in-my-sleep escapades with plant and animal companions that speak to our depth of connection.

Making others suffer by telling them your dreams is cruel and unusual punishment, but please endure this one-liner, the central plot element of a recent nightmare: Someone was digging up my Japanese umbrella pine, intending to steal it.

Forget that, in the conscious realm, I know that taking a shovel to a 25-foot conifer that has been in the ground some 35 years is an ill-conceived endeavor, certain to fail. Heavy equipment would be required.

My dream-world panic nevertheless registered the highest level of red alert, because this unusual conifer, known as Sciadopitys verticillata, is the equivalent of my firstborn.

It was the first thing I planted on the property where I now live, before there was a garden — the reason I put the spade into the ground that began the process of defining the shape of the place.

When I came to the Hudson Valley as a weekender, just two plants traveled with me from my first horticultural experiments in Queens. Each was shoveled into a bushel basket and jammed, last-minute, into the back of the van by movers, who looked at me as if to say, “Really, lady?”

Yes, really.

One was as common as could be: a clump of dark purple Siberian iris that still lives here, too.

The other was rare back then, and is still not widely grown. It was the young umbrella pine, less than five feet tall, that had barely begun rooting into the first home I had given it before I uprooted it, unable to leave it behind.

Thank goodness. And I’m grateful, also, that a tree many gardeners have since told me did not cooperate for them played along with my impulsive desire.

It still seems strange that I came to know such an oddball conifer as a beginning gardener. Growing familiar, reliable performers like that Siberian iris would have been more predictable. But I’d seen a specimen tree at an arboretum and couldn’t shake its come-hither look. It doesn’t resemble anything else.

I am not alone in thinking so. Once the garden had grown in and I hosted tours, my Japanese umbrella pine became the most frequent subject of visitors’ questions — always some version of “What’s that tree with the plastic needles?”

Caveat emptor: Plants, lacking the gift of locomotion, may stay put, but they will nevertheless take you places you never expected to go. Each one leads down a rabbit hole of inquiry, to books and websites, and then often to research papers dense with unfamiliar words.

Some Sciadopitys facts were relatively easy to grasp, fortunately. Although the umbrella pine may grow as high as 100 feet in the cool cloud forests of its native central Japan, in a North American garden it is more likely to top out at 30 feet, even after many years.

One of the tree’s natural companions in those forests is another conifer, the popular Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa). Long before I knew that, I planted one not far from my umbrella pine. Did someone whisper, “Hello, old friend,” or was that overheard in another of my tree-filled dreams?

My beginner self was quickly schooled in how useless plants’ common names are, as the umbrella pine is not a Pinus, or even a member of the pine family (Pinaceae). The umbrella part, at least, offers some insight: The lustrous, oversized needles are arranged in whorls of up to 30, like the spokes of an exceptionally well-reinforced parasol.

But they aren’t your typical conifer needles, and they remain a bit of a mystery even to scientists. Is each one actually two leaves in a fused pair? Or are they not leaf tissue at all, but modified shoots — flattened stems called cladodes that take on the photosynthetic function? (A more familiar example of cladodes are the stems-cum-leaves of Christmas or Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera.)

More odd bits: Those tiny brown bumps along the woody stems are technically leaf tissue, but because the needles-not-needles contain the chlorophyll, to the gardener in me they are foliage.

Dig around and you’ll come across the word monoecious, denoting plants that bear both male and female flowers on the same individual. On an umbrella pine, those are the pollen cones and the seed cones. Like many conifers, this tree forms females in the upper crown and males farther down. (Gender segregation!)

Sciadopitys, likewise, is monotypic, meaning a genus with a single species, or a family with just one genus. Like the ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), it is both. Neither has close living relatives, which takes us to the designation of “living fossil” — a less-precise phrase, coined by Charles Darwin for organisms that resemble their ancestors from millions of years earlier.

The umbrella pine, like the ginkgo and dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), dates to early dinosaur times and has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.

I transported my young tree not even knowing what zone I was headed to — an act of faith, and the blind kind, based in enthusiasm-clouded ignorance. The move to Zone 5 meant the tree would experience winters about 15 degrees (or a zone and a half) colder, based on the average annual minimum winter temperature of the U.S.D.A. Plant Hardiness Zone Map system.

But even someone who did the advance homework I didn’t would have had difficulty finding clear guidance on the requirements of an umbrella pine, including winter-hardiness and heat-tolerance. Some sources say the tree will grow in Zones 5 to 8; others say it can survive in Zone 6 on the cold end and Zone 9 on the warm end.

But hardiness, and overall success, depends on a combination of factors, not just winter lows. This was underscored for me by Michael S. Dosmann, the keeper of the living collections at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, the 150-year-old living museum of trees in Boston.

I emailed him, seeking advice on how to get a Sciadopitys started off right, so I could offer answers to other gardeners who have asked for the secret. The only explanation I have ever been able to provide was “beginner’s luck” — not much help.

Umbrella pines planted as long as 125 years ago live happily at the arboretum. Dr. Dosmann has also visited native stands in Japan, where they grow “in a very wet and humid part of the world,” he replied, in acidic, well-draining soil.

What makes them tricky to acclimate when first planted, then?

“I suspect that under cultivation it isn’t the minimum temperature that does trees in, as much as it is the desiccation from winter wind and potentially sunscald,” he wrote, recalling seeing seedlings grow “like weeds in the misty understory of giant trees that were in full sun.”

He added: “A poorly established umbrella pine — too dry and too sunny — particularly when young, may die in the winter, but minimum temperature might only have been the final nail in the coffin.”

I had unknowingly picked a good spot: It was protected enough, and was bright but not baking. And it was a place where the topography and other plants and structures provided some buffer from winter winds. In warmer zones, particularly if relative humidity and precipitation are low, Dr. Dosmann said, the tree will need more shade.

I have called the Sciadopitys my firstborn, although it is not my eldest. Native oaks and maples along the property line are many times its senior. A tiny remnant of a long-ago apple orchard — just five trees — grows within the garden boundaries, too, including one tree estimated to be 150 years old.

Like the umbrella pine, the domesticated apple (Malus domestica) is not a native plant, but it has been in North America since the 17th century, a couple of hundred years longer than Sciadopitys, and it is far more widely grown, and has naturalized. At bloom, apple trees are full of bees, and even welcome flashily attired Baltimore orioles, who sip the flowers’ nectar as they have for many generations.

Admittedly, the umbrella pine is more of a people pleaser, but its dense foliage proves a consistent draw for birds, as well. Chipping sparrows tuck in to build nests about halfway up my tree each spring, and various species take shelter there on winter days, when other conifers are less cozy. The birds don’t ask whether those are actual leaves or modified shoots — they simply express approval, their voices emanating from within.

A decade ago, an ice storm took out the middle trunk of my multi-stemmed umbrella pine, which now has just two. It was a partial loss, but it felt almost unbearable.

So if that bad dream came true, but the thief was open to negotiation, would I offer up the oldest apple tree in exchange for the Sciadopitys? It’s an impossible choice. Unlike the Siberian iris, neither could be replaced.

Trees take time — some longer than the span of a human life. And that’s a reminder that they are where a gardener, and a garden, should always start.


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

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