Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) bonsai tree is a very popular species among bonsai hobbyists. It has many cultivars, some of which are compact and easier to train and shape. This species is also known under the common names Japanese False Cypress and Sawara False-cypress. The Sawara Cypress belongs to the genus Chamaecyparis (the genus of False Cypresses) and the family Cupressaceae.
Native to Taiwan and the Japanese islands of Honshu and Kyushu, Sawara Cypress is a slow growing coniferous tree. The tree was introduced into cultivation in the west in the second half of the nineteenth century. Today, Sawara Cypress has widespread distribution across North America. Apart from the dwarf and semi-dwarf varieities which are typically used as bonsai trees, Sawara Cypresses are also a popular element in garden landscaping. They are used in hedges, rock gardens and foundation planting.
The bark is attractive, reddish-brown, with a stingy fibrous texture, and shredding/pealing in long, thin strips. It looks thicker at divergence points, such as branch elbows/splitting. The foliage is medium green, arranged in flat sprays. Compared to the trunk, the branches of Sawara Cypress look much thinner. When young, the branches give the Sawara Cypress a conical shape. As the tree matures, the branches open up wide. The shape of the Sawara Cypress tree is often described as pyramidal.
Unlike the leaves of the Hinoki Cypress which have blunt tips, the leaves of Sawara Cypress have pointed tips. The canopy is typically symmetrical and has smooth outline. The leaves of this evergreen conifer are usually green during the growing season, but turn reddish-brown in autumn. They have a characteristic white stomatal band at the base. The foliage of different Sawara Cypress cultivars can have a wide range of colors, including shades of green, golden-yellow, blue-gray, or silvery blue.
The cones are small and globose (approximately 0.5 cm in diameter). They resemble wrinkled green peas, and are not considered to be particularly ornamental or attractive. It takes 7-8 months for the seed cones to mature after pollination. Green in summer, they turn brown-black when ripe. Compared to the cone of a True Cypress tree, the cone of Sawara Cypresses is smaller and contains fewer seeds. This is considered a key characteristic that distinguishes these two categories of trees.
In its native habitat, Sawara Cypresses usually reach a height of 15-20 meters. Exceptionally tall specimen in the wild have grown up to 50 meters tall, and develop a diameter of 2 meters. However, when cultivated, the tree usually grows 6-9 meters tall. Sawara Cypress is commonly used for bonsai. It is often seen in oriental and rock gardens. The scent of the Sawara Cypress wood is lemon-like.
The tree’s wood has been traditionally carved into small decorative objects. Although its cultural value in Japan is lower than that of the Hinoki Cypress, it is still significant. The rot-resistant Sawara Cypress is often used in temple and palace building. Because of its aromatic properties and fine texture, the wood of this tree is also used to make ofuro tubs (Japanese traditional wooden bathtubs).
Sawara Cypress is one of the ‘Five sacred Trees of Kiso’ in Japan (the remaining four are Ch. obtusa, Thuja standishii, Thujopsis dolabrata and Sciadopitys verticillata). No part of the Sawara Cypress tree is edible. The plant is not toxic. No known medical uses have been reported in literature.
The origin of the genus’ name is found in the Greek words ‘khamai’ meaning ‘on the earth, i.e. dwarf’ and ‘kuparissos’ meaning ‘cypress’. The specific epithet pisifera means ‘bearing pea-like seeds,’ with roots in the Latin words ‘pissum,’ meaning peas and ‘ferre’ meaning ‘to bear’. This is a reference to the very small, pea-sized round cones which the tree bears. The species was first described in 1847 by the Austrian botanist Stephan Friedrich Ladislaus Endlicher.
This guide provides the foundations of Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) bonsai tree care.
How Long Does It Take To Grow Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) Bonsai?
Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) is an excellent outdoor evergreen bonsai that has slow-to-medium growth rate, but needs regular attention. Depending on the cultivar, Sawara Cypresses typically need 20-50 years to reach maturity and ultimate height.
The most popular cultivars of Sawara Cypress are:
- Chamaecyparis pisifera f. plumosa (This variety of Sawara Cypress is prominent for its feathery and ferny branches.)
- Chamaecyparis pisifera f. squarrosa (This is a moss-like cultivar with bluish, wavy or curly-edged foliage. The specific epithet ‘squarrosa’ means ‘rough’ in Latin, and refers to the leaves of this cultivar.)
- Chamaecyparis pisifera f. filifera (This cultivar has gray-green, thread-like foliage. The branches are drooping and cord-like. This is a slow-growing cultivar.)
Other popular varieties are the dwarf and semi-dwarf forms of Filifera Aurea (slow-growing), ‘Curly Tops’ (globose, with metallic blue foliage), and ‘Sungold’ (slow growing, with golden-yellow foliage). Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Boulevard’ is also very popular, since this bonsai tree is relatively easy to train and shape.
How to Plant and Grow Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) Bonsai?
Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) is a hardy outdoor tree, with specific requirements in terms of soil, light, temperature, watering and feed.
Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) is easily propagated by semi-hardwood cuttings.
Semi-hardwood cuttings are taken from growing shoots, around the time they start to get woody (when the shoots begin to change their color).
Grafting is another popular method to propagate Sawara Cypresses. The technique of grafting consists of joining tissues of two different plants (the lower part is called rootstock, and the upper part is called scion). Less popular method of propagation is from seeds, as germination rate may vary, and the whole process takes longer.
Position, Lighting and Temperature Requirements
From spring to autumn, the Sawara Cypress should be kept in full sun, for at leaat 6 hours a day. Hard frosts and icy winds can damage the tree in winter. It is best to shelter the tree during harsh weather conditions. It has been reported that the tree does not tolerate atmospheric pollution. Sawara Cypress thrives best when it is cutivated away from large urban settlements.
Specific cultivars of Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) may differ in their tolerance to frost and heat. For example, Chamaecyparis pisifera Filifera Arurea, popular for its golden foliage, is tolerant to frost and drought, but not to heat.
Soil and Watering Needs
Sawara Cypress does not require specific soil, but will thrive well in soil rich in organic matter. Free-draining compost is recommended. The soil range most suitable for this tree is mostly sand to some clay. The soil pH can be in the range of 5.5 to 7.5.
During summer and whenever the temperature goes high, the tree needs to be abundantly watered, as it is native to damp habitats. The foliage can also be drenched, but misting when the sun is strong should be avoided.
High-nitrogen fertilizer should be applied in spring, and low-nitrogen feed in late summer or early autumn. Nitrogen fertilizers promote the growth of the leaves.
When the seedling or the tree is young, it is recommended to add extra phosphorus to the soil, since this can boost the development of the root system.
How to Care for Your Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) Bonsai?
Although a popular bonsai tree, Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) needs full commitment and frequent attention (especially the foliage). If grooming is neglected, the tree easily loses its freshness and attractive look. In the hands of a dedicated bonsai artist, this tree is suitable for most bonsai styles.
Pruning, Pinching and Wiring
Sawara Cypress grows vigorously, and so pruning and pinching needs to be done regularly throughout the growing season. As the tree grows, the branches tend to droop. This can be managed with regular pruning.
Rather than cutting the foliage, cutting into the wood is better, to avoid formation of brown marks. Wiring can be done in any season. It is possible to leave the wires on the bonsai tree for a couple of years, but no longer. If the wires start to cut into the wood, they need to be removed immediately.
Sawara Cypress needs to be repotted in spring, every 2–3 years. The tree should be removed from the old pot along with the soil. The process of removing the old soil can be arduous, especially if the soil contains a lot of organic material. A small rake can be used to carefully comb out the roots. No more than a third of the total root-ball mass should be removed when repotting. Once the root trimming is compIete, it is recommended to repot the tree into a free-draining compost with plenty of organic matter.
Pests and Diseases
Overall, Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara Cypress) is quite resilient and not much susceptible to major pests or diseases. They can sometimes be infested by scale insects and bagworms. Other reported problems are juniper blight and root rot. Specific insecticides can be used to treat the problem. To minimize the risks of pests and diseases, the dead foliage should be removed regularly.