Hinoki, Chamaecyparis obtusa

A common companion of the Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, is the famous Japanese hinoki, Chamaecyparis obtusaHinoki is a smaller tree, however in ancient times massive ones existed – alas those forests of old are long gone.  Nevertheless, this tree has a special place in Japanese culture, revered mostly for its wood, but also for the fragrant essential oils found throughout its tissues.

Chamaecyparis obtusa a massive evergreen coniferous tree reaching 35 meters in height, and with a trunk up to a meter in diameter.  The bark is reddish brown to silvery and grows in long strips.  In young trees these can flake off in thin strips, but older trees have more compact bark generally, and thicker in substance.

Chamaecyparis obtusa foliage
The foliage of Chamaecyparis obtusa reveals its place within the cypress family.

The branches grow in  a whorl up the trunk and tend to hang down a bit.  Young trees are cylindrical, having broad and rounded crowns with old trees having more irregular branching and more pendulous branches.  Older specimens can have branch-less trunks for the first several meters, especially in low light conditions such as plantation forests.

The leaves are dark green to blue-green, scale-like in appearance and blunt at their tips.  They grow on branchlets that are spreading, fan-like, and tend to be in a relatively flat plane.  These branchlets break off intact when they fall rather than falling apart on the tree. The pollen cones and seed cones are born separately, but on the same tree (monoecious habit).  The red-brown pollen cones grow singly on the outermost twigs and are roughly conical shaped and are only 3-5 mm long each.  The seed cones start out growing bright green and eventually turn a rich brown.  They are nearly perfectly round and are about 2 cm across.

Hinoki bark
The bark of young hinoki often peels off in strips as can be seen on the left. Older trees have more stable, tight bark, as seen on the right.

This common conifer is found in southern Japan from western Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu.  The variety formosana is reported from Taiwan and sometimes is considered a separate species, C. taiwanensis.  Both varieties are very rare in the wild with just a few remnant populations. While hinoki prefers moist woodlands, it also can be found on exposed ridge-lines, from 0-1000+ meters elevation.  Trees can be in mixed stands with other conifers or most often with broad leaf trees, both deciduous and evergreen.

This is another of Japan’s more significant trees.  Hinoki wood has been cherished throughout the centuries as a building material for traditional structures such as shrines and temples since it is resistant to rot. It also is used in Shinto ceremonies and to build special baths particularly at hot springs (known as onsen).  The wood is fragrant, clean, and beautiful to look at.

Hinoki trunk
The trunk of hinoki is prized for the wood it contains. Truly large trees are uncommon today, but much sought after.

A freshly constructed building made of hinoki wood is a pleasure to step inside due to the cocktail of organic compounds found in its essential oils – the word that comes to mind is “clean”, and perhaps it is this quality that makes it important in purification rituals in Shinto religion.  The wood is so resistant that well built structures can last 1000 years, and the remnant artifacts made of hinoki date back even further, into the Yayoi Period, (BC1000-AD200).  It is still used in building today, but only for high end market products carrying equally high end prices.

Hinoki essential oil is jammed full of aromatic chemicals.  One of the more celebrated components is hinokitol, a monoterpenoid found in many members of the cypress family, the Cupressaceae.  This compound is low in toxicity and has been proven to inhibit the growth of some bacteria, including Chlamydia trachomatis.  On the popular market hinoki essential oil is sold as another natural cure all and can be found in products such as perfumes, toothpaste, and hair tonic.  It also is used in aromatherapy.  While such uses are questionable from a pragmatic perspective, they will do little harm to the user, except maybe empty their wallets – these products, in particular the oil, are often sold at high prices.

Hinoki’s usefulness has lead to the demise of this species in the wild.  It is extremely rare throughout its range (including Taiwan), showing up on red lists of endangered species.  The irony of it is that the tree is very common today in Japan and can be seen on almost any hill or mountain in the southern regions.  My neighborhood is actually surrounded in hinoki forest.  Volunteer seedlings are always coming up in my garden.  The odd reality is this:  while hinoki plantation forests are common today, native forests are nearly gone, existing only in remnant stands.  Big specimens are uncommon as well, being seen occasionally at shrines and temples, but far less than the more celebrated sugi.  In fact, I can’t honestly say I’ve seen a true wild specimen ever.  The largest specimen I know of is in the middle of a hinoki plantation along an old concrete road near my house.

Hinoki plantation forest
Hinoki plantation forests are biologically sterile places, host to a few woody plants, ferns, and mosses. Many ferns find them to their liking however.

Hinoki plantation forests, like their sugi counterparts, are biologically simplified systems, providing poor habitat for most plants and animals.  Still, many fern species are perfectly happy in them and among the orchids, both Liparis nervosa v. bituberculata and Cephalanthera falcata seem to actually benefit from these forests.

Seedling hinoki can be seen where ever adult trees are present, sometimes carpeting the ground or an old tree stump.  This is definitely a tree with a future in Japan, but the forests of old are by and large a thing of the past.

The name, hinoki, simply means “cypress”.   It it tempting to call it the “fire tree” because hi means fire and ki tree, but this name predates current syllabaries so such an interpretation is likely false.  It is true that hinoki wood is burned in Shinto rituals, but apparently this has nothing to do with its name.  Since ancient Japanese was born in preliterate times, names dating to that period remain obscure in many cases.

Hinoki pollen cones
The pollen cones of hinoki cypress are small and deep brown. Like the sugi (Cyrptomeria japonica), hinoki pollen causes hay fever each spring for millions of people in Japan.

Hinoki is widely grown throughout warm temperate to cool temperate climates the world over.  Like sugi, many cultivars have been isolated, some being very dwarf forms less than a meter tall and others becoming small trees.  Forms such as ‘Crippsii’, ‘Nana Aurea’,  and ‘Nana Gracilis’ are common throughout the world, often in private gardens, as hedges, and in public and commercial plantings.  Oddly, here in Japan, it is much less commonly used in the landscape than in America.

It seems to do well in a wide range of soil types, but is no doubt sensitive to truly basic soils.  It is more drought tolerant than its common companion, Cryptomeria japonica, but still needs steady water throughout the year.  It probably will not thrive in climates that are low in humidity or experience cool conditions year round.  These trees like warm to hot summers with ample moisture, and require a true cool down in winter.

Hinoki seed cones
The seed cones of hinoki are nearly perfectly round. Seed production is often high and the ground under adult trees can be literally carpeted with seedlings. Fortunately, few continue to adulthood, thus this tree is not a weedy species.

This tree should be able to grow in USDA zones 8-5, and though some sources list their cold hardiness to zone 4, they may prove unreliable without protection from cold dry winter winds.  They do seem quite a bit more cold resistant than Cryptomeria.  The Taiwanese variety is probably much less cold hardy, perhaps only to zone 8 or 9.  Most sources insist this tree requires full sun conditions at least part of the day, or they will go into decline.  From my observations, young trees in plantation forests can withstand moderate shade as long as they are able to grow upwards into the canopy.

There is little to say of this tree that isn’t positive.  It has lovely wood that smells good, it is a beautiful tree to look at, either as a full grown wild type or one of its many cultivars, and it isn’t weedy.  Loved throughout the world as a garden subject, and also in its native homeland for the qualities of its wood, bark, and needles, hinoki has made its impact on human culture.


10 Replies to “Hinoki, Chamaecyparis obtusa”

  1. First, many thanks for being where you live and the passion & love of nature for which I feel when you describe this perfectly beautiful tree – I wanted to ask if it is OK if I copy the photo of the pollen branches which seem like they are fingers of joy reaching out to me & the photo is so very precious – one way or the other – thank you if it is not OK to copy and keep – even show it to someone or two who may wish to enjoy the photo. Also, as I am interested in the healing aspects of essential oils. Amen.

    1. Amen indeed Jean! Let me go through my files and I’ll send you a larger format photo directly to your email. Give me a few days though, it has been crazy on my end lately. BTW, the Cyrpotomeria are in full “bloom” now and the hinoki will follow very soon!

  2. Thank you for the whole range of very fascinating botanical videos and articles on Japanese flora. To a botanically interested Japanese female married to an Englishman, and residing in England for the last 37 years, your website has become something of an educational yet very nostalgic fix for me. I am from the Kanto region, so the variety of plants may be a bit different from Kyushu, but even the ambient sound in the background of your videos are just as evocative to me. Every time I go back to Japan I am struck by the sheer amount of different wild species; British countryside can only offer about 3000 different species and apparently slightly more than half of that is composed of naturalised alien species!
    Please continue to enlighten and entertain me with your Japanese botanical musings.

    1. Glad you are enjoying the show Keiko. That is my intention – to let people see what is here in Japan plus all my other ramblings about plants I love.

  3. I really enjoyed your article on the Hinoki false cypress. I recently (Sept.,2013) purchased and planted a 4 ft.tall, Hinoki false cypress (C.Obtusa). I have been watering it thoroughly, and I was distressed to find that the top branches of this tree are turning brown on the tips. I love this tree. What am I doing incorrectly? It’s in full sun (as much as we have in Pacific N.W.), I dug the hole, filled it with new soil and mixed in dry fertilizer with high nitrogen content. I’ve watered it 5-6 hours (drip irrigaion) every other day. I am very distressed to see the top branches turning brown on the tips. HELP!!!

    1. Hi Carolyn,

      It is difficult to diagnose from a distance problems such as yours, but I will say that it sounds like your tree has a root problem. Any recently planted tree is going to have some root shock that eventually will progress into adaptation to the new conditions – or failure. By the sounds of it, you may be overwatering it, possibly due to poor drainage, though your method of watering is fine. More likely though, that high nitrogen fertilizer is the issue. While fertilizer can be applied to established plants easily enough, newly transplanted ones may suffer from a sudden influx of fertilizer. This often manifests as needle or leaf burn at the tips. Recommendation – remove the plant, wash the rootball well, and replant into soil free of fertilizer. Next spring, as new growth starts you may try fertilizing it again.

  4. hello, hinoki seem to be very nice trees. How hardy to cold temperatures are hinokin trees, i did not find something about that in internet. Can you tell me, below which temperatures northern Japanese hinoki trees are nor hardy enough?

    1. Most sources say they can handle USDA cold hardiness zone 5. I’ve seen them growing in zone6, no problem. I would guess -30 C or so is the coldest they will take, maybe a little more. The nice thing is they handle summer heat very well too.

  5. 1. Hinoki are an important forest tree in Japan, does anybody know how far north in Japan Hinoki is cultivated, does Hinoki occur also in the northest part of Hokkaido or even on other islands more north?
    2. Does Hinoki occur in the same areas in Japan as Sawara cypress does? Is Hinoki inter- crossable with Sawara cypress or with Port Orefort ceddar (similar to Leylandii Cypress)?

    1. C. obtusa naturally occurs as far north as Fukushima Prefecture on the Pacific coast of Japan, with the bulk of its native range in south-central Honshu and Shikoku. Plantations can be found as far north as Fukushima Prefecture. As for growing it further north as an ornamental, I guess it is possible since the species is fully cold hardy to USDA hardiness zone 5. This link shows where plantations of it is grown in Japan (3rd figure down, the pink cylinder showing C. obtusa: http://www.rinya.maff.go.jp/j/sin_riyou/kafun/data.html

      Yes, C. pisifera and C. obtusa overlap in distribution, with the former naturally occurring a bit further north in Honshu. These two species can interbreed readily, but I’ve read that C. pisifera and C. lawsonia do not produce healthy hybrids, though some seed is viable. I don’t know about crossing C. obtusa and C. lawsonia.

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