11. Japanese Red Pine

Pinus densiflora: Japanese Red Pine

Cultural Significance

Pinus densiflora have survived from as far back as the Muromachi period (14th -16th century), giving archaeologist many clues as to what facets defined Japanese medieval society. An analysis of the pollen fossil record indicates that Pinus densiflora tends to flourish in areas ravaged by forest fires.  The pollen fossil record indicates that as the Japanese began to use the land for agriculture, Pinus densiflora dramatically increased numbers.  Early slash and burn techniques made open spaces more plentiful, ensuring the adequate sunlight required to support Japanese Red Pine.

Native Ecosystems

It is native to Japan, China and Korea and to a small extent, Russia.  It prefers to grow in full sun on well-drained soils such as loam or sand.  Japanese Red Pine is notoriously cold tolerant.  Japanese Red Pine is a very slow growing tree and species outside of its native Japan rarely reach 30 feet in height.  Japanese Red Pine (where it is known as “aka-matsu”) owes its propagation to active cultivation and due to human disturbance of the environment.   

There is no specific date or name to link to the introduction of this species to the continental United States.  It is possible that the tree was brought over with Asian immigrants or actively sought out for horticulture purposes by wealthy landowners of the past or as late as the 20th century.  The species represented here (campus) is most likely the “Umbraculifera” variety; the most common variety of Pinus densiflora in the United States.  Because this tree is fairly rare, only thrives in open areas and tends to have weak branches, Japanese Red Pine is considered non-invasive in the United States.  Whether it is the odd shape, its showy bark or its twisting multi-trunks, Pinus densiflora reminds us that our internal image of “pine” may be radically different in other parts of the world.

Beneficial Uses

Japanese Red Pine is used for resins or gum. The wood of the Japanese Red Pine is strong and enduring.  It is particularly sought after in Japan for footbridges or other standing structures.  Pinus densiflora grows much larger in its native countries and yields more usable wood. It has been used by societies in Japan for thousands of years as a source of lumber. Pinus densiflora is also common in Korea where the immature green cones are used to accent the flavor of a certain wine-beverage. 

Biological Characteristics

While many trees are admired for their showy flowers or their unique leaves, for the avid collector or enthusiast, other attributes determine a complete picture of beauty.  Two aspects popular among tree aficionados are the quality of the bark and the crown of the tree.  Japanese Red Pine, Pinus densiflora, is a popular ornamental species mainly because of its showy bark and its unusual silhouette.  Japanese Red Pine does not invoke the typical image of a pine tree.  Instead of a tall, pyramidal form characteristic of other pines, Pinus densiflora is multi-trunked with a rounded or irregular crown.  Because of its condensed stature and its ability to resemble a large, dense bush, Pinus densiflora has found a particular niche as an interesting and exotic ornamental.

Japanese is famous for its showy bark, which yield the species’ common name.  Japanese Red Pine has a very pleasant rusty-copper color, which peels away from the trunk in scale-like pattern.  Considering winter appearance as well as blooming appearance is important when viewing or selecting trees.  During the winter months, the coppery-colored bark looks even more dramatic set against a snow-white backdrop. 

The modified leaves, called needles, of the Japanese Red Pine are fairly long, measuring 4-8 inches in length.  They are a pleasant deep-green, with two cream-colored stripes that become prominent during the growing season.  Needles grow in pairs that whorl around the branches.  The needles are aromatic and give of a pleasant pungent pine scent.  A single needle can persist for 3-4 years.  Japanese Red Pine is monoecious, with male and female reproductive organs on the same tree. The seeds are located in a woody cone that collects in groups of 2-5 cones and may endure on a branch for 2-3 years.