This week we bring you the coffin tree (Taiwania cryptomeriodes) or Taiwan cedar, one of the largest trees in Asia. This tree is found in forests in mainland China and Taiwan growing alongside plants not unlike those found in our coast redwood forests. Coffin trees stand 200 feet tall alongside Douglas firs, oaks, rhododendrons and berry plants, densely hung with old man’s beard lichen.
Similar to the coast redwood and giant sequoia, its wood is remarkably resistant to fungi, insects and decay. This makes it highly desirable, and as the name suggests, it is often used for building coffins as well as homes and furniture thanks to its beautifully marked grain. It is long-lived, reaching 1,600 to 2,000 years and older.
Once more widely distributed throughout Asia, these trees were heavily logged due to their valuable timber, losing 30 to 40 percent of its original range. In 2002, scientists discovered a new population of coffin trees in the remote mountains of northern Vietnam, hundreds of miles from the next-closest population and in acute danger of local extinction. A successful community-based conservation program has since been established to protect these disconnected specimens from illegal harvesting and damaging land-clearing. China, for its part, declared a ban on coffin tree logging in 2001. The establishment of Yushan National Park in Taiwan in 1984 has helped protect this tree.Beloved by locals for its beautiful wood, often distinguished by yellow and red markings, the coffin tree served for generations as a sturdy building material and, for those who could afford it, an ideal final resting place. The range of these trees is now restricted to damp locations at elevations that have, thus far, avoided the axe. Like their redwood relatives, coffin trees are monotypic — the only species within their Taiwania genus — and thus contribute greatly to global biodiversity.