In this blog, and those that will follow, we are going to explore the conifers (evergreens) that grow in Japan. Not so much to learn more about garden varieties that can be grown in American gardens – although we will refer to them from time to time – but to find out more about them in natural home, and their important place in Japanese society. Most of Japan lies in the north, and like the northern regions of America, the original forests were mostly evergreens of the conifer kind, trees with needles and cones, ranging from pines and firs to plant that resemble our native cedars or cypress.
Extensive forests of these trees covered the mountains of the country, and despite the small size and large population of Japan, a surprising amount of that forest persists, while still allowing logging. Perhaps this is because most of these trees were sacred to Japan’s Shinto religion. Equally, it could be that since lumber was the only material for construction available, they learned to protect its source. Another very good reason to use wood rather than stone or brick for buildings in Japan is the high incidence of earthquakes. Flexible wooden buildings resist them much better than rigid buildings, something the Japanese learned millennia ago.
Speaking of lumber, let’s start our tour of Japanese evergreens by looking at the most important trees prized for their wood.
‘Cypress’ is a bit of a catch-all name, to cover a lot of plants that are evergreen and have green, fern-like or fan-like foliage. When Western explorers and naturalists first went to countries unknown to them, they tended to give the same name to a plant that looked similar to plants they already knew. So, arriving in Japan and seeing much of the country covered with tall evergreens with foliage like the familiar cypress trees of Europe – they gave them the obvious name, Cypress. After some examination, though, it was realized they were actually different, and it is more correct to call these trees ‘False-cypress’, or by their botanical name of Chamaecyparis. That name isn’t quite as challenging to say as it looks, try “kam-ee-SIP-uh-riss” and you’ve go it. It is even the same number of syllables as ‘false-cypress’.
Of course, this is a Western system of naming plants, quite different from traditional Japanese ones, so in Japan Chamaecyparis obtusa, the name given it by Western botanists, is known as hinoki, written as 檜 or 桧. It is a large, fairly slow-growing tree that reaches well over 100 feet tall, with a single trunk that is 3 feet wide.
Trees live for hundreds of years, like this 700 year-old specimen in the grounds of a temple. Trees in forests are of course much taller than this one! The leaves are usually small, flat, green scales that cling to the young branches, making a fan-like stem that looks a bit like our American arborvitae (Thuja). The most obvious difference is in the way the stems are spread out in a flat spray, rather than clustered as they are in arborvitae.
Hinoki is THE prime wood of Japan, and one of the best lumbers in the world. It has a close, straight grain, a soft light-brown color and a scent of lemon. It is incredibly resistant to decay, even when wet. Some of Japan’s oldest and most famous temples are built of hinoki, including the the world’s oldest wooden structure, the Temple of the Flourishing Dharma, or Hōryū-ji (法隆寺). This buddhist temple in its current form is 1300 years old, and 65% of it is the original wood, which you can see in this detail. The wood, although 1300 years old, is still good enough to be re-cycled back into the temple stucture when repairs are being made. When planed they even still release their scent!
Hinoki wood is used for grand palaces and temples, but also for much more every-day items, like bathtubs (perfect because of is rot-resistant), furniture, walls, and sculpture. It is the most prized wood for sushi chopping-boards, and is self-sterilizing.
If you want to grow an Hinoki in your garden, there are many beautiful garden varieties – much smaller and more accomodating than a full-sized tree – that you can grow. Browse our Hinoki Cypress page to see the incredible range available of what is probably the most beautiful of all ornamental evergreens.
Related to Hinoki, but less important for lumber, Sawara (椹) is another tall forest tree, found a little further south. It grows as a tall, straight-trunked tree, like these magnificent trees making an avenue at the Togakushi shrine.
Known to us a Chamaecyparis pisifera, it is not as highly regarded for lumber as Hinoki, although the wood, being less fragrant, is popular for rice bowls and chop sticks. It’s main traditional use is to make the frame of Shoji screens, like this elegant old one.
Like many conifers, young Sawara seedlings have spiny needles, then go through an transitional stage before developing the flat, scale-like leaves seen on adult trees. In this tree seedlings sometimes get ‘stuck’ in that first, ‘juvenile’ stage or the second intermediate stage. This produces distinctive trees, that have been preserved as ornamental varieties. The three stages are called ‘Squarrosa’ (juvenile), ‘Plumosa’ (intermediate) and ‘Filifera’ (a modified adult stage with long, unbranching stems). Because of these differences garden varieties of Sawara look radically different from each other, and it can be hard to realize they are all the same tree.
If you want to enjoy a sawara in your garden, and see the ornamental value of these different leaf forms, take a look at our Sawara Cypress page. The wide variety of sizes and foliage forms make them some of the most exciting ornamental conifers available.
Sugi (Japanese Cedar)
A very tall and long-lived tree, Sugi (杉) is the most widely-planted tree in Japan, a beautiful towering giant that can pass 200 feet in height and be 13 feet wide at the base. Trees live for centuries, and the oldest is this giant, looming like a cliff from the mountain mists. It is at least 2,200 years old, and reputed to be up to 7,000 years old. Called Jōmon Sugi, it is in a UNESCO World Heritage Site forest on the island of Yakushima.
The unique foliage of this tree makes it easily recognized, and it occupies its own genus, as Cryptomeria japonica. This picture of a branch is from the first Western description, by Philipp Franz von Siebold, a Swedish naturalist who was one of the first Western scientists to enter Japan in the 18th century.
Sugi is widely planted and harvested across Japan, and in other parts of the world too, especialy the Azores. It’s lumber is richly-fragrant, and scented like cedar. This helps it resist both insect attack and molds. It is relatively soft and easily worked for carpentry. Although widely-used in Japan it isn’t exported outside Asia very much. It’s the most commonly-used lumber in Japan, and is found in everything from chopsticks to ceilings, packing materials, barrels and furniture.
So prized was sugi that demand always outstripped supply, so the Japanese came up with an ingenious way of growing long, straight trunks faster and more sustainably than cutting trees down. They adapted bonsai pruning techniques to create daisugu. Rather than cut down a mature tree it is pruned to encourage several strong shoots. These grow rapidly and straight up, and the stems can then be harvested without destroying the tree. This is similar to the Western forestry technique of pollarding, and has the same result – long, straight trunks produced more quickly. The striking look of the trees became so popular trees in gardens are sometimes grown this way for ornament. These daisugu are growing at the famous Ryōan-ji Zen buddhist temple.
There is just one species of sugi, but just as with these other tall, forest trees, there are garden varieties that fit in much better. The range is much smaller than with Hinoki or Sawara, but there are some handsome plants, both as mounds and upright dwarf trees. The unique foliage makes sugi a tree that should be in every conifer collection. Check out our current selection of the best varieties on our Cryptomeria page.