Saturday, November 17, 2012

Jomon Sugi in the News: Poor Health and Clone-Naming

Jomon Sugi's been in the news a couple times this month.

Folks enjoying Jomon Sugi from the observation deck.
Jomon Sugi: Possibly the oldest tree in Japan.
First the bad news: Jomon Sugi had a checkup on November 6 and failed terribly. The big branch (1-meter in diameter!) that leans out towards the observation deck is hollow near it's base and seems destined to fall, quite possibly this winter if we get much snow. Last week they posted a warning sign, and yesterday they closed the front half of the deck where people like to take pictures.

Since Jomon Sugi is hollow, it's age cannot be determined, but it may be the oldest of all sugi, possibly one of the first to grow on Yakushima after the super-volcano that buried southern Japan up through Tokyo exploded 7,300 years ago. Jomon Sugi survived Edo-logging and went undiscovered by 20th century clear-cut loggers until 1966. Surely the publicity around the discovery of this ageless tree (first called "Oh-Iwa Sugi") helped environmentalists in the fight that shut down Yakushima's logging villages in 1970.

The branch in question is right in front of the observation deck.
The front-middle branch of Jomon Sugi
is rotting and may soon fall.
But now Jomon Sugi may be killed by our ignorant love for it. Jomon Sugi's troubles started when people began trampling its roots to get close and take strips of bark or carve their initials. To restrict access, an observation deck was built and monitoring cameras were erected. (That's why most pictures show only one side of the tree.) Naturally, the view of Jomon Sugi was obstructed by brush and small trees, so these were cleared away (a ridiculously careless move, in retrospect). The soil then began to wash away, and all attempts to replace it with sand and artificial supports failed in Yakushima's incessant rain. Replacement seedlings had to be planted where the former trees and brush used to be, and a fence had to be erected to keep the deer from eating these. I'm told that before they cut down those shady trees that offered protection from the sun, Jomon Sugi used to be a darker color. But now, exposed to sunlight, the near side of the trunk has turned to its current shade of pale gray.

Back in Japan's bubble days there was even serious talk of building a cable-car up to Jomon Sugi. I imagine that would have sealed it's death.

The stump of Okina Sugi, which
fell in 2010. Could Jomon Sugi
meet a similar fate?
The first undeniable sign of trouble was a large limb--over a thousand years old!--that fell off in the winter of 2005. This is commonly blamed on the heavy snow that year, but I imagine a tree the circumference (>16m) of Jomon Sugi needs every food-making limb it has. Especially  once the core starts to rot away life becomes a battle between rot and growth. When the trunk is too hollow and frail to support the tree, it can end up like Okina Sugi, a 2,000-year-old tree that fell over in September of 2010.

Maybe an optimist could consider this as natural pruning, but two branches in ten years? . . . I'd like to think this tree could live forever, but I feel inclined to suggest you visit Jomon Sugi before it's too late.


In happier news, the Yakushima Environmental and Cultural Center is hosting a competition to name twelve clones of Jomon Sugi. These were grown from the limb that fell in 2005. Send a postcard with your name, age, address, and phone number along with the clone name and reason to the Culturual center at Miyanoura 823-1, Yakushima-cho, Kumage-gun, Kagoshima-ken, 891-4205. Deadline is December 24, 2012.

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