Sciadopitys verticillata, or Japanese umbrella tree, gets its common name from the umbrella-like spirals of needles that grow at the ends of the branchlets and branches. Each whorl contains 20-30 soft, flattened, dark green needles (to 5” long) that radiate outward like the ribs of an open umbrella. In its native habitat in Japan, this evergreen conifer may grow to 90’ tall. In cultivation in the U.S., however, it typically matures to 25-30’ tall over many years.
It is a very slow grower, usually attaining a height of no more than 4-5’ in the first 10 years. Japanese umbrella tree is often multi-trunked, and exhibits a dense, narrow, conical to pyramidal habit in youth, tending to open up with age. Oval, erect fruiting cones (to 4” long) emerge green in the first year and ripen to brown in the second year. Attractive reddish brown exfoliating bark is usually well-hidden by the dense foliage.
The needles that appear in showy whorls (verticillata meaning whorled) conduct photosynthesis for the tree, but are technically not leaves. The true leaves hug the branches and are small, scale-like and non-showy. A number of cultivars, including dwarf, semi-dwarf and pendulous varieties, are available in commerce. Although once included in the bald cypress family (Taxodiaceae) which is now merged into the cypress family (Cupressaceae), Japanese umbrella tree is now generally considered to be in its own family (Sciadopityaceae).
This tree dates to the Triassic era in the age of dinosaurs. One of the “Five Trees of Kiso,” the forest that once belonged to the emperor, it is considered sacred in Japan. It is known as Koyi Maki in Japanese.