Many of the "old-fashioned" plants considered specialty, novelty or choice plants for the garden today were imported from Asia during the plant collecting expeditions of the 1800's. A number of the nurserymen, gardeners and landscape designers of that era were especially interested in amassing collections of rare and unusual plants. Their clients were frequently royalty or the wealthy residents of large estates concerned with making a strong impact on their landscapes by using new, visually striking or bizarre plants to create a "plant zoo" within the framework of the landscape design. One example of the legacy left from this era is the Chinafir, Cunninghamia lanceolata. Named in honor of John Cunningham who discovered the tree in China, the Chinafir is not a true Fir at all but is actually a Chinese relative of both our native Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and the Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) all of whom are in the same botanical family called the Taxodiaceae.
The Chinafir is a large, evergreen, coniferous tree with conspicuous, flat needles that are as sharply pointed as a lance (hence, lanceolata). The shape of the needles is reminiscent of the shape of the needles of many of the true Firs (Abies sp.) which, when combined with the country of origin, gives Chinafir its common name. Chinafir grows with open, somewhat pendulous branching in a pyramidal habit when young but can become somewhat ungainly when older. The plant quality, texture and habit varies tremendously from seedling tree to seedling tree but Chinafir is always an exotic, unusual looking plant. Trees are usually multi-trunked and can reach 70 feet in height. The better specimens grow to be magnificent, looming trees covered with glossy, shining green, miniature Ex-Caliburs that are the thousands of sharp needles glinting in the sun. As the tree matures, the grey-brown outer bark peels off in strips to reveal attractive, red inner bark. The squarish, brown cones are unique and add an intriguing element to the tree. In China this tree is especially valuable for its handsome, durable and exceptionally workable wood.
In exposed, windy sites, or areas with severe winters, Chinafir can suffer wind and cold damage resulting in significant die-back which contributes to the tree becoming ragged with age. Chinafir is hardy throughout the Piedmont and Coastal regions of the southeast and it can be grown in protected areas in the mountains but if the temperature drops to -10 to -20 F branch tips will winter-kill. It prefers moist, well-drained, acid soil but perform well in the wet, heavy clay soils of the south and beautiful large specimens can be seen in older neighborhoods of the southeast. There are no significant pest or disease problems with Chinafir.
Chinafir can be propagated from cuttings taken in November, treated with very concentrated rooting promoters, and rooted under mist. Production of a quality Chinafir takes several years. This is because young plants grown from cuttings taken from any branches other than the main leader retain the lateral orientation of their parent branch and sprawl about horizontally until they reach a certain age. After 2 to 3 years of development, they begin to grow upright and form a normal, central leader. A block of young Chinafir in the field, branches lazing in all directions is a unique sight indeed!
There is a lovely cultivar of Chinafir called 'Glauca' with waxy blue foliage that is very beautiful as both a young and mature tree. 'Glauca' may also have somewhat improved hardiness compared to the species.
Chinafir is one of hundreds of fascinating plants left us by the Victorian plant collectors but its striking foliage and pendulous branching lend it a unique air of exotica. This magnificent plant makes an excellent specimen tree in a good site where its striking character can be fully appreciated. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), a dramatic 12 foot specimen of 'Glauca' (behind the Silver Linden) and a young, special selection of Chinafir from Johnson Nursery Corporation of Willard, North Carolina, (south of the Magnolias) hold court on the eastern border of the Arboretum. The bold, glossy foliage, beautiful habit, and exotic character of these trees cannot help but catch the eye of each visitor to the gardens. Come out to The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), walk the eastern border, and see why the Victorians were so fascinated by the extraordinary Chinafir.