Trees and flowers may attract your attention, especially when they are not
familiar to you and you cannot identify them. A little knowledge of the flora
and vegetation of Japan will help you understand plant life you may encounter
The Japanese archipelago extends north and south, from latitude 45
degrees N down to 24 degrees N, and therefore average annual temperatures vary
greatly within its range, between 8 degrees and 20 degrees Centigrade (46-68
degrees F.). In the northern island of Hokkaido, plants of the cirum-arctic
origin occur, while in the southern islands show features of tropical
vegetation. The annual precipitation is on the average about 1600mm(64 inches).
Warm temperate forests in Kii region in western Japan often receive over 4000 mm
(130 inches) of rain every year. Because of this high rate of precipitation,
Japan is largely covered with dense stands of vegetation.
To begin with, let's look at pine trees you may often see in
Japanese style gardens
the genus pinus, the pine family
Pine trees are very often found in Japanese paintings and woodblock
prints. Beautifully trimmed pine trees are an essential part of a traditional
Japanese garden. They are probably one of the most popular coniferous species in
this country. Pine has been considered as a sacred tree to which the Shinto god
descends, and it is still customary to put kado-matsu (pine at the gate), a New
Year decoration, at the entrance of a house to ward off evils and invite good
luck. There are local legends handed down from ancient times about a heavenly
maiden's robe hung on a pine branch. This indicates that pine (or matsu in
Japanese) is not only very widely distributed but also very closely tied to our
The pine family(Pinaceae) is the largest family of
gymnosperm which includes 200 species spreading among 11 genera. The genus
pinus, comprising 100 species, has a wide range of distribution in the northern
hemisphere. Kuromatsu (black pine) and Akamatsu (red pine) are representative of
the seven pine species that occur in Japan.
thunbergii var. thunbergii
Honshu,Shikoku, and Kyushu islands, Korea.
Occurs in coastal areas
Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu
islands and other regions of East Asia. Occurs from foothills up to 2,000 m
Kuromatsu (left) and Akamatsu (right)
Fossils of their
ancestoral relatives are traced back to the Cretaceous (90 to 65 million years
ago). Both kuro-matsu and aka-matsu are extensively distributed throughout
Japan. At least in eastern Japan, kuro-matsu is generally found in the coastal
areas, while aka-matsu is at higher (usually 700-900 m or 2300 to 3000 ft.)
elevations. Neither kuro-matsu nor aka-matsu is a dominant member of a climax
plant community in the natural succession of vegetation. As pioneer tree species
these shade intolerant trees proliferate at an eary stage of succession among
shrubs and herbaceous species before other tree species appear. As time passes,
they are replaced by shade tolerant climax species. Therefore many of the
current pine-dominated forests are often results of human disturbances; pines
can persist in the forest only when herbs and shrubs and other understory plants
are removed periodically to prevent further change in species composition of the
community. Then why have pine forests been maintained? Because resin and carbon
abundantly contained in pine have long been very useful botanical recources for
human activity and pine forests with ample supplies of firewood and building
material have been heavily ustilizerd and well kept since ancient times.
How to distinguish one from the other: the difference in the color of
the trunk is apparent; the trunk of kuro-matsu is dark gray and that of
aka-matsu is reddish brown as their names indicate. They also have many
similarities: their barks have similar scale-like patterns and their needles are
both two in a bundle.
Hai-matsu (Japanese stone pine) Pinus pumila
If you are a hiker, the chances are that you will see hai-matsu around
the timber line, which is at about 2200 m (6600 ft) - 2500 m (7500 ft.)
above sea level in central Japan (at lower elevations in northern Japan
and at higher elevations in southern Japan). Unlike other pine species,
it prostrates on the ground to endure harsh climatic conditions of high
mountains. And the cones remain closed even at matuarity. Hai-matsu occurs
extensively in northeastern Asia, extending its range as far north as the
Arctic Circle in eastern Siberia. Outside Japan it does not always occur
at high elevations. In the geological past, when there was a general cooling
trend over much of the earth's surface, Japan was no exception, and Hai-matsu
took refuge at lower altitudes or latitudes. When it began to be warm again after the retreat of the last glacier, this pine species
ascended the mountain slopes to seek a cooler climate. Today below its
colonies live many other species of trees and it is confined to the upper
reaches of the mountains. Naturally hai-matsu is not found on the slopes
of recently erupted volcanoes, sucn as mt Fuji. Instead of hai-matsu, larch,
Larix kaempferi, occurs on Mt Fuji. Larch is a deciduous conifer which
also can cope with severe climatic conditions.
Second, let's look at another genus of the pine family.
|Karamatsu (larch) the genus larix, pine family
Larch is a deciduous member of the pine family. There are about ten species
of larch distributed in the northern hemisphere. In Japan occurs only one
species, Larix leptolepis or Karamatsu in Japanese. This deciduous pine
is found in the montane zone, often. on rocky or sandy soils, or disturbed
sites where it can enjoy sufficient sunlight. Maximum height: 20 m. Individuals
growing in the upper reaches of the montane zone or in the subalpine zone
are stunted. Needles are about 2 - 3 cm long; 20 - 30 needles in a bundle.
Extensively planted across the country.
Larches on the slopes of Mt.
Sugi (Cryptomeria japonica), belonging to the family Taxodiaceae (the Redwood
family), is widely planted but it is as a matter of fact a relict which
once flourished but its distribution is quite limited today. This coniferous
species favors mild climates and occurs at low elevations. Since ancient
times we have used it for building houses, temples and shrines.
Above: Sugi is planted all over Japan, but
in the wild it rarely grows in pure stands. Here are some individuals of Sugi
intermixed with deciduous broad-leaved trees (in Akita
Sugi (left) and Coast Redwood (right)
To see details of this plant, go to Plants of Japan
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