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Marginals: Cunninghamia lanceolata

by Andrew Keys on August 27, 2010

Cunninghamia lanceolata goes by a few names: blue China fir, China-fir, Chinafir, and the name by which I’ve always known it, Cunningham fir. A timber tree in its native (you guessed it) China, Cunninghamia is an out of vogue evergreen you’ll find planted mostly in the Southern U.S. A shaggy giant grew on the corner of Park Avenue and Church Street in my hometown, its suckers barely controlled by residents of the house it dwarfed on that small lot. It’s gone now (Et tu, Katrina?), but I noticed another down the street when last I was home, as well as leftover suckers from what must’ve been a big tree at the home of my childhood neighbor.

At any rate, Cunningham fir is, of course, a bit of an oddball, which is why, of course, I’ve always had a soft spot for it. Its hardiness in Zone 6 is always noted and questioned, i.e. it gets that “Zone 7(6)” rating or some such. I knew its unpopularity meant I’d just have to see for myself.

When I discovered a local nursery, which shall remain nameless, was growing small specimens, I said sign me up! My Cunninghamia went in the ground in the spring of ’09, and it was putting on striking, glaucous blue new growth by midsummer. Most likely it is the cultivar ‘Glauca,’ though it was sold to me as the species.

The only problem (and this is why the nursery shall remain nameless) is that I suspect I was sold a cutting from a lateral branch, and much of the lit says these never develop correctly. If that weren’t enough, the “leader”–a VERY generous term; it seemed pretty indistinct to me, save having been tied to a bamboo stake—unceremoniously kicked the bucket, while the rest of the plant flourished. SO WHO KNOWS? Encouragingly, Floridata tells me lateral cuttings do develop into trees, if broader ones, so here’s hoping. (That would be just fine.)

My Cunninghamia gets dappled morning sun and seems happy. It lives in the lee of my kitchen and back fence, so it’s pretty sheltered from dessicating winter winds. It’s definitely an odd bird right now, so we’ll see if it grows into something of substance. If not, it will be my Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Cunninghamia is a two-member genus in the cypress family, Cupressaceae, which taxonomists seem to have added the family Taxodiaceae to recently, and thus now it includes just about every evergreen you can shake a stick at: junipers, redwoods, cypresses, Chamaecyparis, and LOTS of obscurities.

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