The umbrellas of Jamaica Plain

by Jon Hetman, Director of External Relations & Communications

February 12, 2018

Sciadopitys verticillata 503-70*C

The umbrellas of Jamaica Plain

Francis Parkman at 20

Francis Parkman, Harvard historian, horticulturist, and Jamaica Plain resident, at age 20.

In 1861, Dr. George Rogers Hall of Rhode Island sent the first shipment of living plants from Japan to New England. Consigned to Harvard historian and horticulturist Francis Parkman, the plants were cultivated with great success in his garden in Jamaica Plain. Hall returned from Yokohama a year later, bringing more plants with him. Some of the contributions Hall and Parkman made to American horticulture through their efforts were Kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa), hiba arborvitaes (Thujopsis dolabrata), Fujiyama rhododendrons (Rhododendron brachycarpum), semi-double flowered crabapples (Malus halliana Koehne var. parkmanii), and a novel conifer species that came be known as the umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata).

Sciadopitys verticillata 503-70*C

Sciadopitys verticillata AA 503-70*C, photo by Kyle Port

Former Arboretum Horticultural Taxonomist Stephen A. Spongberg—currently Curator Emeritus of the Arnold Arboretum and Director Emeritus of the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha’s Vineyard—included Sciadopitys in a 1990 Arnoldia article, “The First Japanese Plants for New England” [Arnoldia 50-3]. Parkman, a friend and neighbor of Arboretum Founding Director Charles Sprague Sargent, likely suggested that Sargent succeed him not only as Professor of Horticulture at the Bussey Institution, but as candidate for director at the newly created Arnold Arboretum. Parkman’s influence on our neighborhood endures today through the Francis Parkman School at Forest Hills, Parkman Drive skirting Jamaica Pond, and the granite Francis Parkman Memorial standing at the site of what was once his Jamaica Pond estate, Sunnyside. At the Arboretum, his legacy lives on in seven accessions of umbrella pine, including four that date to July 1898 from Veitch Nursery in England (an early employer of Ernest Henry Wilson), and a handsome specimen adjacent to the Hunnewell Building. In February, learn more about Sciadopitys, our Tree-of-the-Month, in the Visitor Center.

“One of the evergreen Japanese conifers, in particular, caught the eye of Parkman, who probably gave it the protection of a greenhouse before deciding to test its hardiness out-of-doors during a New England winter. Parkman may also have coined its common name, umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata [Thunberg] Siebold & Zuccarini), to denote the spoke-like arrangement of its glossy green needles. Not a pine at all, this unique tree has been placed by botanists in its own family—the Sciadopitaceae—and, like the ginkgo, it has no close living relatives. Miraculously, it too has survived from the remote geological past.

Fossils provide evidence that these trees once grew over a wide area of Eurasia and formed an important component of European forests. Brown coal deposits in Germany from the mid Tertiary are frequently characterized by the remains of the leaves of umbrella pine, attesting to its former abundance. It also once grew in Greenland and Canada, but today the single extant species is restricted in nature to forests occurring between three and six thousand feet in elevation in the mountains on the Japanese islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu.

The Japanese umbrella pine has proven hardy in the environs of Boston, and a grove of fifty-year-old [now nearly 80-year-old, ed.] trees has firmly established the species in the collections of the Arnold Arboretum. These individuals produce cones on a nearly annual basis, and as they mature the lower limbs die, exposing the trunks of the trees to view. Young trees rarely produce cones and usually retain their lower limbs; consequently, the cinnamon-brown bark of the trunk is obscured by the dense whorls of the dark-green, almost plastic-like leaves. As young trees, umbrella pines grow slowly and symmetrically, forming shapely, evergreen spires that are highly prized as specimen trees in the gardens of those fortunate enough to grow them. When plants can be located in the nursery trade, the prices they command reflect the esteem in which they are held. At the Arboretum, a younger generation of these trees accents the plantings in front of the Hunnewell Visitors’ Center and illustrates their landscape use.”

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