Sunday, 3 April 2011

An old acquaintance

Taiwania cryptomerioides, Batsford Arboretum
As a young gardener and botany student I was more or less familiar with the ‘standard range’ of British native and ornamental woody plants, but had never given trees much attention: they were just there. Then, in the early summer of 1989, I joined a group visiting Batsford Arboretum where the late Lord Dulverton gave us an introductory talk. In it, he said how proud he was of the Taiwania he had got established. I had read about the species in Kingdon-Ward’s posthumous Pilgrimage for Plants (1960) and piped-up something about it being a ‘coffin-tree’. Lord Dulverton seemed not to be aware of this, but was keen that I should see the tree in question. To do this, we got into his sleek Jaguar and drove up the grassy slope to as close as possible to what was then still a young tree. It seemed such a fantastically eccentric thing to do that it made a great impression, and I can fairly state that this was the first time I really took notice of an unusual and ‘different’ tree.

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
Having spent all Saturday working on this mega article (8000 words so far - there's a lot to say about this tree) I thought I would take time out today to go to visit the tree at Batsford, not having been for far too long. I'm delighted to say that it is thriving and looking in excellent health, with no damage whatsoever from the winter. I estimate it to be 12 m or so tall, and about 32 cm in diameter, growing up beautifully straight, amid many other fine and interesting conifers in this beautiful collection. Lord Dulverton would be delighted.


  1. Its a lovely tree - the way the branches sweep the ground. It would make a much nicer garden boundary than leylanii. But I'm assuming it's probably too big for the average garden. Shame really.

    The needles remind me of yew - is it related do you think?

  2. It would certainly be very much nicer - and pricklier - than leylandii. It is certainly a big tree - a very big tree, but neat when young and well worth the space.

    Taiwania is a member of the Cupressaceae, cypress family.

  3. Oh, for acres......

    (and to be twenty again!)


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