Dear Readers, I spotted this plant in East Finchley Cemetery a couple of weeks ago, and, in the words of the inestimable Kylie Minogue, I just can’t get it out of my head. There was something about the colouration, the feathery foliage and the sheer presence of the shrub that intrigued me. I know that it’s relatively rare in this country, and so some of you will not have seen it before, but I think that, as a specimen plant, it deserves a bit more attention.
Japanese cedar is a member of the Cypress family, and is related to the Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) though you wouldn’t know it from the smaller cultivar shown above. As the name suggests, the plant is endemic to Japan, where it is known as ‘sugi’. At one extreme, the tree can grow to 230 feet tall, with a trunk measuring 13 feet in diameter but at the other end of the height scale, Japanese cedar is often used as a bonsai. Somewhere in the middle, the variety Elegans pictured above could result in a tree about 30 feet tall.
Japanese cedar is the national tree of Japan, and there are many stately avenues of the plant, including the Cedar Avenue of Nikko. This was planted by a feudal lord who could not afford to donate the usual stone lantern to the shrine of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who died in 1616, and so he offered to plant an avenue of Japanese cedar instead, to protect the visiting pilgrims from the heat of the sun. The result was the longest tree-lined avenue in the world, at some 22 miles long. The project was started in 1625 and it is estimated that over 200,000 trees were planted.
Japanese cedars can live for a very long time: there is one on Yakushima island in Japan which is somewhere between 2000 and 7200 years old. In his book ‘Remarkable Trees of the World’, Thomas Pakenham described the tree, known as the Jomon Sugi, as
“a grim titan of a tree, rising from the spongy ground more like rock than timber, his vast muscular arms extended above the tangle of young cedars and camphor trees”.
Fortunately, it’s a five-hour trek to get to see the tree, and then a platform has been raised to prevent people from getting within 49 feet of this venerable giant. This didn’t stop vandals from ripping a 4 inch square of bark from the plant in 2005, sadly. What a shame that a branch didn’t ‘accidentally’ thump them on their ignorant heads.
Now, to return to ‘our’ Japanese cedar for a moment. That deliciously feathery foliage is a result of an anomaly that has been specially bred into the cultivar Elegans. Normally, this kind of foliage changes when the plant is about a year old, and becomes something closer to a ‘typical’ conifer. Elegans retains its juvenile foliage for the whole of its life.
I find it interesting that humans often select for juvenile characteristics in the animals that we surround ourselves with: the domesticated dog, for example, is said to demonstrate neoteny, because it retains many puppy-like characteristics into adulthood. You only have to look at the ‘cute’ features on toys and Disney cartoons to realise that we often prefer the big eyes, huge heads and long limbs of baby creatures to the less endearing hairiness and muscles of the adult. I wonder if this sometimes also extends to plants? Certainly in the case of Japanese cedar we appear to have chosen to freeze the development of the shrub at an early stage, and you could argue that some examples of miniaturisation in plants are doing the same thing. I shall have a ponder. Generally juveniles are easier to manage than adults (though any parent of teenagers may beg to differ).
Japanese cedar has been extensively used for its fragrant, light-weight timber. It is the only wood used in the Japanese craft of magewappa, which uses steam to bend the wood into the beautiful containers shown below. Only trees over one hundred years old are suitable, and there can be no knots or discolouration in the timber. The woodworkers of Akita prefecture in Japan have long been the practitioners of the craft, and manage the forests to ensure that there is a suitable supply of the timber.
The relationship between human beings and Japanese cedar is not one of unalloyed tranquillity however. Together with the hinoki , the tree is a major cause of hay-fever in Japan, which is thought to affect up 25% of the population, with those in cities such as Tokyo suffering even higher rates. There was massive deforestation to provide timber during the Second World War, which led to landslides, soil erosion and other deleterious effects, so in the 1960’s there was a major replanting. However, it became cheaper to import foreign timber and so the native forests were left unmolested and uncut. At thirty years, they began to produce pollen. This, coupled with the pollution in cities (which seems to somehow prime people’s immune systems for hay fever) has led to unprecedented levels of the condition. I love that, in Japanese, one word for hayfever is kafunsho, which sounds to me exactly like a sneeze.
The problem is not to be underestimated, however: it affects some people so badly that they resort to laser treatment to ‘turn off’ some of the nerve endings in their noses. The hayfever drug market in Japan is booming, and some people even take ‘hayfever holidays’ to the low-pollen areas of Hokkaido and Okinawa. The government is trying to move towards growing varieties of Sugi which produce less pollen but as more timber is imported than grown in Japan, so the number of people skilled in forestry in the country has dropped dramatically. I have personally never suffered from hay fever, but have known lots of people who have, and I know how miserable it can be. It will be interesting to see how Japan rises to the challenge.
And so, to some poetry. Who would have thought that some authors would have turned to the subject of hay fever for inspiration? But Shuko Hanayama (not herself a hayfever sufferer) has written several poems on the subject. I suspect that they were more resonant in the original Japanese but still, you get the idea.
“People wearing dazzling white masks
Day after day
Shedding tears due to pollen in spring
Making me feel the pathos of things
As they show runny noses”.
“The number of miniscule pollen granules
from just one cedar tree
is as astronomical as the number of stars
in spiral galaxies”
“I see clouds of pollen from a cedar mountain drifting
as if they were plumes of smoke
from a forest fire”.
But, in writing about hayfever and Japanese cedar, Shuko Hanayama is in good company, as in 2017, Emperor Akihito composed a poem celebrating the pollen-less Japanese cedar saplings that he was planting. As he was in his eighties at the time, I wonder how much thoughts of his legacy were in his mind? Trees are so often planted as a leap of faith in the future. I hope that the disturbed balance of trees and people will come back into harmony soon.
The 68th National Arbor Day Festival
Non-pollen Japanese cedar
Here have I planted
Hoping no one will suffer
From pollen any longer.
Photo One by By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1040911
Photo Two by By Montrealais – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4358849
Photo Three from http://www.travel-around-japan.com/k36-05-cedar-avenue.html
Photo Four by By Σ64 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18761874
Photo Five by By MPF at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16805061
Photo Six By sota – 我が家の曲げわっぱ達, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37409041
Photo Seven by By ふうけ – ふうけ’s file, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=546227