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Tree of the Week: A cedar with annual color changes

October 10, 2009 |  6:00 am


The plume cedar -- Cryptomeria japonica elegans

First-time viewers sometimes wonder if the plume cedar they are looking at is sick or dying when they see its mahogany or copper-purplish hues. But they need not fear: It is a temporary condition brought on by low temperatures.

The plume cedar is an unusual variety of the Japanese cedar that never sheds its attractive juvenile foliage and goes through annual color changes wherever temperatures drop low enough. The fast-growing cedar, Japan’s national tree, which is known as Sugi there, may tower to over 200 feet. It is a conifer related to and somewhat resembling the giant sequoia tree, but without the thick and spongy bark. But the relatively small plume cedar is a diminutive family oddity, completely unlike the species, and is valued as a beautiful smaller conifer. The tree does best in colder and wetter climates but the tree has high drought tolerance. The Southland is about its southern limit.

The evergreen grows slowly into a dense, fine-textured, symmetrical pyramid of about 20 feet tall by 10 feet wide, although it may slowly keep on increasing in height and width. On older trees the trunk may lean or curve. Branches hang down slightly. Thin reddish-brown bark peels off in strips, especially on old trees. Soft and feathery awl or needle leaves are less than 2 inches long and are green to bluish-green during most of the year. Flowers are inconspicuous and the tiny brown cones are about a half-inch to 1 inch in size. The tree likes full sun, tolerates a wide variety of soils and reportedly will grow in compacted soil. There are no surface root problems, but the leaves are sensitive to leaf blight and leaf spot.     

The tree is sometimes planted in groves, as in the photograph above, or some branches may be pruned out. Several dwarf varieties are available.
--Pieter Severynen

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Photo: Pieter Severynen