Plant 167

Cunninghamia lanceolata (Lamb.) Hook. (Cupressaceae)


Chinese fir

Representing one of the world's most ancient plant groups, Cunninghamia lanceolata has a considerable resemblance to the araucarias, in particular the South American Araucaria angustifolia. The Chinese fir, a native of China, has been found in Laos and Vietnam. Cunninghamia lanceolata is a constituent of the Mixed Mesophytic Forest Formation of the warm temperate regions of China. The species' capacity to coppice, which is unusual among conifers, in addition to its tolerance of shade, ensures its survival in logged areas.

Introduced by the Scottish gardener and plant hunter William Kerr in 1804, Cunninghamia lanceolata was planted on private estates across Britain in the nineteenth century. Today, it is frequently planted as an amenity tree in Chinese cities, as well as being accessioned to botanical collections and gardens in many other countries. The light, durable, fragrant, almost white wood of Cunninghamia lanceolata has been utilised for many purposes for centuries. Large trees are milled for the construction of houses, and planks are used for general carpentry.

The shape of the Chinese fir tree is conical, with gracefully-tiered branches that are pendulous at the tips. The trunk is furrowed, with red-brown scaly bark. The young branches are covered with densely packed leaves. Individual leaves have no leaf stalk, are twisted and arranged in two opposite rows along the stem. Consequently, the pale green leaves appear to emerge from all around the stem. The spear-shaped leaves (which give the tree its specific name - lanceolata) can persist for up to five years. The tree's female cones are spherical, and are generally inconspicuous until they mature.

The Chinese fir is a tree that can reach heights in excess of thirty metres. Although hardy, the Chinese fir is an infrequently planted conifer that requires shelter from drying winds if the mature foliage is not to suffer from desiccation. The tree generally reaches its most impressive sizes in the damper parts of the United Kingdom. Of the cultivars in the nursery trade, Cunninghamia lanceolata 'Glauca' makes a very attractive landscape component, especially in the winter. The tree's powder-blue, flat needles complement its graceful arching habit.

The generic name Cunninghamia commemorates the early nineteenth-century English botanist Allan Cunningham. Cunningham was one of Joseph Banks's early recruits to Kew's efforts to explore the world's plants. After a few years collecting plants in south-east Brazil, Banks sent Cunningham to explore Australia, where he made his most significant botanical contributions.

Further reading

Farjon A 2010. A handbook of the world's conifers. Vol. 1. Brill.

Wang CW 1961. The forests of China; with a survey of grassland and desert vegetation. Harvard University.

Ben Jones