Written by davethetreecenters • April 24 Some Evergreen Trees of Japan – Matsu, the pines

If one image instantly says, ‘Japanese Garden’, it is the twisted pine tree. Dominating most gardens, you could make a garden with just one, and nothing else. Trained to resemble a natural tree on a windswept hillside, it is a symbol of endurance, determination and also of patience. It isn’t a coincidence that the words for ‘pine’ and ‘waiting’ sound the same, although written differently. In Japan to even own a pine tree is a big step – a pine is a commitment that lasts a century, an ancient saying tells us.

There are six species of pine tree found in Japan, but only three are of importance in gardening. Collectively they are called matsu, (松). One, the black pine, is far and away the most widely used.

Pines are perhaps the easiest of all conifer trees to recognize, and even non-gardeners can usually spot one – the needles give it away, with few other trees having leaves anything like them. Look a little closer and you will see that the needles are carried in bundles of two, three or five, an easy feature to spot that puts you well on the way to identifying the species. Two Japanese pines have needles in bundles of two – black pine and red pine. One, the white pine loved of bonsai growers, has needles in bundles of 5, noted in its Japanese name of goyō matsu – five-fingered pine.

For information on other Japanese evergreens, see this blog on cypress.

kuro matsu, Japanese Black Pine

Kuro matsu is know to western botanists as Pinus thunbergii, a name that commemorates Carl Peter Thunberg, a Swedish naturalist who was among the first Westerners to describe some of the most important Japanese plants. Kuro matsu is found in coastal areas and areas up to about 3,000 feet, and generally grows in places with little or no frost. In gardens it will grow in zone 6 but no colder. Left to grow it can become a large tree, up to 125 feet tall and with a trunk 6 feet across. There must once have been forests of trees that large, because the wood was widely used for construction in Japan between the 14th and 19th centuries, in the Muromachi and Edo periods. Sugi (Crypotomeria) seems to have gradually replaced it as larger trees became rare. This forest of kuro matsu was planted in the 17th century for protection from storms and winds along the Karatsu coast in the south of Japan.

Bark of a mature Japanese black pine

Kuro matsu is popular for gardening in Japan today because it is naturally rugged in appearance, and can relatively easily be trained to emphasis this. The needles, in bundles of two, are 3 to 5 inches long, dark green and naturally twisted. The bark is dark gray to black, and very rugged, split into plates and ridges. These features give it a tough and durable look, and in Japan it is seen as ‘masculine’, in contrast to the softer, ‘feminine’ look of red pine. The cones take 18 months to mature, and are chunky, 2 to 3 inches long and wide, dark gray-brown and open in winter.

Wood of matsu. Note the name in Japanese characters

The wood is still used today, and because of its pronounced and beautiful ring patterns it is popular for plywood and sliding doors, as well as for beams and pillars.

Japanese black pine is one of the best pines for coastal planting, with good resistance to salt-spray, and tolerance of sandy soil. It will even grow right at the edge of the sea. Even if you have no interest in Japanese gardens, it’s a valuable tree for coastal planting in all the warmer states, with good resistance to drought. When planting, good drainage is important, and it is also important to keep the base of the tree free of mulch and needles, so that the roots can be seen coming from the trunk. Be careful when planting to keep it shallow, and certainly no deeper than it is in the pot. Deep planting and smothering in mulch and debris can lead to disease and decline.

Aka matsu, Japanese Red Pine

Japanese Red Pine

Called Pinus densiflora, this pine has a very different look, with its light red-brown bark and needles of a brighter, softer green. Like black pine it was once widely used for construction, with little distinction being made in Japan between the two species for lumber. It grows in China and Korea as well as in Japan, again low-down, in coastal and lower regions. It can grow to 100 feet and is typically contorted and twisted, especially when growing along the coast. The needles are light green and flexible, growing between 3 and 4 inches long. ‘Densiflora’ means ‘dense flowers’, referring to the abundance of pollen cones in spring at the tips of the branches.

In America this tree is seen less in landscaping than black pine, despite being hardy to zone 5 and easy to grow in sandy soils. There are no garden varieties, but it’s a tree worth seeking out. In Japan, the softer ‘feminine’ look of this tree means it is more often used as a single tree in a private garden, while black pine is the choice for mass-planting and larger gardens. The head picture of this blog shows a trained aka matsu in a small garden.

Goyō matsu, Japanese White Pine

Not to be confused with the American white pine, this is the third, and least-used, of the Japanese pines. It has needles in bundles of five, so it’s immediately easy to distinguish it from black pine and red pine. Called Pinus parviflora, it’s a tree of the mountains, not the coast, and is found through the mountains of Korea and Japan, right up to the tree-line in alpine areas.

White pine in its misty mountain home

Growing to as much as 80 feet in the wild, it usually has a multi-stem look, making it especially attractive in gardens. In Japan it is widely grown for bonsai, since its shorter needles (1 to 2 inches long) and natural irregularity makes it easy to work with. That, the glowing foliage and the clusters of persistent cones are its main charms.

The bark is smooth gray on young trees, becoming rougher with long vertical cracks and plates on older trees. There are different strains of this tree, with different needle colors. In western gardens trees with blue-green needles, usually called ‘Glauca’, are popular. It is normal for a batch of seedlings to contain some with blue needles, so this variety has probably arisen numerous times in nurseries. The seed cones in spring are red, making a striking show against the blue needles.

Since it was introduced into England first, Japanese white pine is probably more popular there, yet it is a handsome and striking garden tree that should be grown more in our gardens. You don’t have to have an Asian-themed garden to grow this easy tree.

The Training of Japanese Pines

A pine being trained (Giulio Veronese)

Compared to Western gardeners, the Japanese spend much more effort on training their garden plants to achieve certain looks. This is especially true of pines, which are formed and pruned even when very large. Specialized nurseries spend years training young trees that have often been collected in the wild, with about half their output being black pine. Never truly ‘finished’, trees are sold and then continue to be maintained in their new homes. After their trunks have been curved and bent, their branches often broken and then re-healed, and the foliage thinned and pruned, they become matsu-zukuri, “pines made by hand”. There are several specific styles, and the iconic form like horizontal clouds called tama-zukuri is the most popular. Not all trees make it – the craftsman who forms it looks for seikaku, a good personality, meaning a tree he can bend to his will in the cause of art. Scaffolding and frameworks of bamboo are used to support broad horizontal branches, and props are used for older trees.

A central activity is pruning the new shoots, which is similar to the ‘candling’ we often do with small pines like Mugo pine. Called midoritsumi, this is done in June and July, before the needles of the new shoots expand and become resinous. They are snapped by hand, which shortens the new growth and replaces it with clusters of buds. When these are mature, in late fall and early winter, they are thinned out in a process called momiage. At the same time older needles are removed to create a more open profile. This also reduces the vigor of the trees, encouraging them to be smaller and more compact. You can see the effect in this picture, where most of it has been thinned, except for the lower right.

Momiage on a black pine (Giulio Veronese)


This blending of nature and art is especially Japanese, but all gardening is very much about manipulating nature in the interests of beauty – otherwise it would be a wilderness, not a garden. The words of Michelangelo come to mind, when he said that he didn’t carve the rock, he released from it the form he saw already in it. In the same way the Japanese gardener releases the tree he senses from the wild structure.

For a first-hand account of Japanese matsu, and their training, see the informative blog by Giulio Veronese, a professional gardener and architect at the Giardini di Villa della Pergola, in Alassio, Italy. Some of his excellent photographs are reproduced with thanks.