|Taiwania cryptomerioides, Batsford Arboretum|
This long-term interest prompted me to volunteer to write the 'Tree of the Year' article for the International Dendrology Society's Yearbook 2010 on Taiwania. This has turned into a huge but fascinating task that has absorbed a great deal of time in the past few weeks.
Taiwania cryptomerioides is a conifer (Cupressaceae) of exceptional interest, being a living fossil - extant trees apear to be identical to fossilized remains from 100 million years ago. Then it grew over much of the temperate northern hemisphere, but now it is found only in Taiwan (where it was first recognized as distinct in 1904), Vietnam and the Yunnan/Myanmar border region (and a few other locations in China where it may not be indigenous). In maturity it is a massive tree, usually seen as a huge emergent towering over the rest of the forest at heights claimed to be up to 80 m tall. Youngsters are rare: it seems to need a bit of disturbed ground (through fire or a landslide) for seedlings to get established on. It was introduced to cultivation in Britain by Ernest Wilson in 1920, but there have been numerous importations of seed from Taiwan since then and it has become a reasonably widely grown tree in specialist collections. It can be gawky-looking, but when it has done well it's very attractive, with long pendulous shoots creating a bluish-green curtain effect. The foliage on young trees is extremely sharp, however, so it's not a tree to caress. The needles gradually turn to scales as the tree matures, however, but this has yet to happen on any British specimen.
The timber is heavy and very durable, resisting rot well. In consequence it was (and probably still is) very much sought-after by the Chinese for making coffins, hence its English name of Coffin-tree. As a result the majority of large trees have been logged, and it survives only in remote places on the China-Myanmar border. It is slightly more abundant in Taiwan, but the Vietnamese population is les than 100 trees and considered critically endangered.
|Sharp-pointed juvenile leaves on the Batsford Taiwania|