Milford Trees, Inc.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Japanese Cedar

(Cryptomeria japonica)
Steve Wing

For a change, let’s consider an exotic evergreen from a distant land: the Japanese Cedar, as frequently known by it’s family name: Cryptomeria. Introduced from Japan in 1861, the tree is gaining a foothold in North America as an ornamental landscape plant. In its native habitat of Japan, it is a massive tree of great importance for its lumber and its beauty. I’ve been working my whole career in the shadow of these green giants, but more about that later.

Cryptomeria japonica is a single species in its family. It is called Sugi in Japan, and this vernacular name is catching on elsewhere and may replace ‘Japanese Cedar’ which is botanically incorrect, as the tree is not a cedar. It is the National tree of Japan, and there are many ‘hugely impressive trees planted centuries ago’, according to Wikipedia. According to the same source, the trees can grow to 230 feet tall and 12 feet trunk diameter. Dirr cites the North American examples of up to 100 feet in height, but give them time. The leaves are needle-like and arranged spirally on a stem. The new growth is airy and light about ¼ to ½” long; as the foliage matures, it seems to harden and tighten. In this climate, the foliage will take on a bronzy hue in the winter. Its North American range stretches from zone 8 in the Deep South, up to zone 5, say, in Boston.

The tree’s wood is strong, but light, scented by a resin which acts as a natural insect repellent and wood preservative. In this regard, it is similar to our Western Red Cedar and Redwoods. These properties make it valuable for construction of buildings and furniture in Japan.
Dirr enumerates many cultivars, but in New England, I only see the basic item in the catalogs I see. Some of the cultivars have been selected for better, greener foliage color in winter.

In the mountains north of Tokyo, lies the town of Nikko where an extensive group of Shinto temples is a notable destination for tourists and pilgrims, situated on sloping terrain covered with massive old Cryptomeria. Indeed, the temples are constructed primarily of brightly painted Cryptomeria and stone. The centuries old temples are assembled without metal fasteners and each one is disassembled, restored, and reassembled once every generation, to preserve the buildings and the skills needed to maintain them. An allee of Cryptomeria planted in 1616 shades the road from Tokyo to Nikko, 65 miles of which are still intact. I visited this place as a kid with my family in 1957. It is in a woodcut print of the end of this road that hangs above my drafting table that I see these Cryptomeria every day.