By Ray Larson, Curator
While there is an abundance of early blooms, bright bark and fragrance elsewhere in the Arboretum this time of year (particularly in the Winter Garden and Camellia Collection), winter is also a time to appreciate conifers. One of the best and most unusual for foliar effects in February is Taiwania cryptomerioides, the Coffin tree. We have three accessions totaling 8 trees in the Arboretum. There are two from 1969 (Accession #315-69 A&B), four from 1996 (Accession #119-96 A-D) and two in the old nursery from 1974 (Accession #465-74 B&C). The 1969 accessions are just south of the main Sequoiadendron grove just off Arboretum Drive E, and the 1996 plantings are at the Newton Street entrance in the Pinetum. Using the interactive map on our website is a great way to easily locate plants.
From a distance Taiwania cryptomerioides looks a little in habit like a young western red cedar or false cypress. But closer in its visual affinity to Cryptomeria becomes more apparent, hence the specific epithet meaning “resembling a Cryptomeria,” or Japanese cedar. The Coffin tree is the only species in the genus Taiwania and hence is known as a monotypic genus. The common name comes from the practice of some native peoples in its natural range using the trees for making coffins. A tree is chosen at birth to be carved into a person’s coffin in old age. The grove in the Pinetum is part of the ½ mile long interpretive trail, and selected specimens along the route feature information about the tree and its uses in small interpretive panels.
In older forests, trees with trunks up to 10 feet wide are not uncommon. However the species is listed as Vulnerable to extensive logging in its native range. Populations 500 years ago were much more robust and widespread. The species is long-lived, and some older populations in Taiwan are now protected.
Ornamentally the tree has much to offer. Perhaps most striking is the array of blue-green needles along the somewhat drooping branches. They look sharp and stiff, but are surprisingly soft and flexible. The textural effect is outstanding, and the narrow shape accentuates the somewhat weeping effect. It is most attractive throughout the winter and spring seasons, and new growth is a brighter blue. Like many conifers, older foliage does turn a brownish yellow before dropping, and this is usually most noticeable in late summer and early fall. It does best in full sun. In its native lands, it grows in mid to upper elevations in areas of summer and autumn rainfall but drier winters. Despite this, it seems to do very well for us with our dry summers and wet winters.
Next time you are in the Pinetum or near the giant Sequoias along Arboretum Drive, be sure to look for this species. The ones at the Newton Street entrance are probably easiest to find, and if you haven’t been to this minor entrance from the Montlake Neighborhood, you’ll notice is reached from a quiet street end.
Common name: Coffin tree
Location: Grids 19-4E in the Sequoiadendron section, Grids 33-7E and 34-7E in the Pinetum at the Newton Street entrance
Origin: Taiwan, northern Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) and Yunnan, China. Populations elsewhere in south-central China are believed to have been introduced.
Height and spread: A large tree, that can reach over 200 feet in the wild. It is fairly narrow in youth, and in cultivation is slower growing. Considered the largest tree native to Asia
Hardiness: Cold hardy to USDA Zone 8