Plant Profile: China Fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata)


Today’s Plant Profile is about the China Fir, or Cunninghamia lanceolata. This is a majestic, evergreen tree that stands out in the landscape with its blue needled foliage. It is not a tree that should be planted in a small area as it can reach 75′ tall by 30′ wide in the landscape. It should be sited in full sun or very light shade and so that it can spread its branches far and wide.

China FirChina Fir was brought to the United States in the 1800’s for use as an ornamental tree. As is indicated by its common name, it hails from China where it can be found growing on roadsides as well as rocky hillsides. This should give you some indication of the toughness of this tree. It will do its very best in moist, well-drained soil but will grow quite well in soil that is drier. It is reliably hardy to Zone 7 but can be grown in Zone 6 gardens as well. In a cold Zone 6 garden, it may be killed to the ground in a harsh winter but it will resprout from suckers and will form a lovely dense shrub until the top is killed again in a subsequent winter. China Fir and Yews are the only two conifers that will resprout from suckers if they are cut back to the ground. You can use this knowledge to your advantage if you have a smaller garden but still want the beauty of the China Fir; just cut it back to the ground when it outgrows its allotted space and wait for it to fill the space again.

China Fir does have one significant drawback: it holds its dead foliage scraps in the tree instead of dropping them like pines and other conifers do. I call them foliage scraps because they aren’t individual needles…they are foot long pieces of foliage that have the needles intact. If allowed to accumulate for too long, the tree can look quite unkempt in the landscape. I have found that if you limb the tree up, it provides a path for the dead foliage to exit the tree. It also allows the lovely cinnamon colored bark to be displayed.

China FirIf you enjoy blue foliage in the garden, you should consider the China Fir. ‘Glauca’ is a cultivar that has been selected for its rich blue needle color. If your garden is small, you can treat it like a large shrub and cut it back every few years to keep it in check. But the true beauty of the China Fir is observed when it is allowed to grow to its maximum ability and spread its long Dr. Seuss-like branches over the landscape. I’d like to know if any of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers have experience with growing China Fir. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at Happy gardening!

February 22, 2012Permalink 13 Comments

13 thoughts on “Plant Profile: China Fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata)

  1. I finally have identified my strange conifer! I love this oddball tree with its droopy branches and many little suckers. The animals love it too, they eat every cone she makes 🙂

  2. In seeking a hardy plant for a college campus in West Virginia, zone 5A or 6B, and have learned that the Glauca form is hardier than the species. Are you aware of any grower in zone 6 that has it available? Please advise. Posted 1-23-13

  3. We planted one of these about 8 years ago from a cutting a friend gave us. For about 5 years it barely grew, maybe 6″ max. Then in year 6 it started to grow, and in 3 years has grown from a 4 foot tree to about 16 feet! We use to call it our Charlie Brown tree at Christmas, but not anymore. It is a beautiful tree and we will enjoy it as it grows as much as it wants. It has the perfect conditions here in N Florida and the soils are ideal, well drained old lake bottom loam.

  4. Was looking on line for a larger picture and how to for my rescue tree. I have been babying it for two years and it is getting too big for its pot. Am contemplating cutting down a large weeping fig and replace it with this beautiful speciman that needs more ground. I am pleased to see it can be cut back or down only to have it grow back. I find the only drawback is the old growth has extremely sharp needles that slice if you dont wear healthy gloves.

    • Those needles can cause some damage can’t they? I hate to hear that you’re considering cutting down your fig though. Is it not doing well? If it’s not on its last leg, I would leave the fig and wait to make sure that the China fir is going to make it. Wouldn’t it be terrible to cut down your fig and then not have your China fir make it either? Just my 2 cents…

  5. just found out today what this is from the county extension agent. its in our front yard about 75 feet tall with 3 trunks. he said he knew of no other ones in this area. I do not know how hard it is to root if some one is interested.thaqnks j powell

  6. We had 3 China Firs that were knocked down by Katrina. I was fond of them though they did drop their prickly branches often. My husband used the trunks and large branches to build 2 arbors and they have lasted (so far) 9 years! These arbors were in a rustic style with the bark left on like you might see done in Red Cedar. Our cats preferred the China Firs to all others in our large yard. Don’t know if it was the pleasant scent or the shreddy-looking bark that attracted them. Glad to know that they are hardy in my new home in Williamsburg, Va. 🙂

  7. I would LOVE to grow some of these!!!! We have a dry-ish area close to a pond that needs something pretty!!
    I have 3 unopened cones in various sizes and a 6 inch “cutting” that I took form the base of a HUGE tree….what are my chances of growing a tree (or 4) from these??
    OR should I go to my local nursery and ask them to get me some babies to plant??

  8. Hi..finally I find others that love these trees. I have one that my grandmother gave me in 2000 when I got married. It was 6 inches tall. It is at least 40 feet tall with 7 trunks and lots of baby seedlings under it 16 year later. My grandmother’s tree was at least 75 feet tall the last time I saw it with tiny seedling under it too. I live in the greater atlanta area, grandmothers tree is in Americus ga. I offer the baby’s to anyone that wants one but they always shy away because of its sharp needle points. Birds love it for its protection…I counted over 60 doves landing in it a nite a few winters ago…Gosh I love this tree!

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