Sakaki (Cleyera Japonica)

Plant: Table of Contents

Sakaki (Cleyera japonica): An Evergreen Symbol of Purification and Beauty

The sakaki tree, scientifically known as Cleyera japonica, holds a special place in Japanese culture and beyond. Revered for its spiritual significance, folklore, and ornamental qualities, this evergreen tree has found its way into gardens, landscapes, and ceremonial spaces. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the cultural importance, cultivation, uses, and care of the sakaki tree. Additionally, we will delve into the medicinal properties, landscaping ideas, and ecological benefits of Cleyera japonica. Let’s embark on a journey to discover the enchanting world of the sakaki tree.

What is Sakaki (Cleyera japonica)?

Cleyera japonica, commonly known as sakaki, is an evergreen shrub or small tree belonging to the family Pentaphylacaceae. It is native to Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea and is widely cultivated for its ornamental, cultural, and medicinal value. The sakaki tree typically grows up to 10-20 feet in height, exhibiting glossy, leathery, dark green leaves and fragrant white flowers. It is characterized by its compact growth habit, making it an ideal choice for hedges, topiary, and container cultivation. The species is also known for its adaptability to different soil types and its ability to thrive in both full sun and partial shade.

The cultural significance of the sakaki tree in Japan is profound, as it is considered a sacred plant, often used in Shinto rituals and traditional ceremonies. Its symbolism as a purifying and protective entity makes it a revered plant in Japanese folklore and spirituality. Beyond its cultural importance, Cleyera japonica is valued for its landscaping uses, including privacy screening, attracting wildlife, and erosion control.

Now that we have introduced the sakaki tree, let’s delve deeper into its culture, uses, care, and ecological relevance, providing valuable insights into this remarkable plant.

Key Takeaways – Sakaki (Cleyera japonica)

  • Scientific Name: Cleyera japonica
  • Common Name: Sakaki
  • Family: Pentaphylacaceae
  • Native Range: Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea
  • Growth Habit: Evergreen shrub or small tree
  • Height: 10-20 feet
  • Leaf Characteristics: Glossy, leathery, dark green
  • Flower Characteristics: Fragrant white flowers
  • Cultural Significance: Sacred plant in Japanese tradition
  • Landscaping Uses: Privacy screening, wildlife habitat, erosion control

Now, let’s explore in detail the various aspects related to the cultivation, care, and uses of the sakaki tree.


The sakaki tree holds a unique place in Japanese culture, particularly in Shinto, the indigenous spirituality of Japan. It is considered a sacred plant and is used in various ceremonies and rituals. The sakaki branches are often used in Shinto purification rites as a symbol of purity and to ward off evil spirits. Additionally, the sakaki tree is associated with fertility, longevity, and protection, making it an essential element in traditional Japanese ceremonies.

Beyond its spiritual and ceremonial significance, the sakaki tree has also found its way into literature, art, and poetry, further enhancing its cultural value. Its elegant and evergreen nature has made it a popular subject for traditional Japanese gardens and landscape designs, reflecting the reverence and admiration for this plant throughout history.

The deep-rooted cultural significance of the sakaki tree makes it a plant of great importance in Japanese society, where it continues to be cherished and celebrated for its timeless symbolism and beauty.


The uses of Cleyera japonica extend beyond its cultural significance to include a range of practical and ornamental applications. Here are some of the key uses of the sakaki tree:

Ornamental Use

  • Gardens: The sakaki tree is commonly cultivated in gardens, both in its native range and around the world, for its ornamental qualities. Its glossy, dark green leaves and fragrant white flowers make it an attractive addition to landscapes and garden settings.
  • Topiary: The compact growth habit and dense foliage of the sakaki tree make it well-suited for topiary, allowing it to be pruned and shaped into various forms, adding an artistic touch to garden landscapes.

Cultural and Ceremonial Use

  • Shinto Rituals: In Shintoism, the sakaki tree is utilized in purification rituals, where its branches are employed to cleanse sacred spaces and to signify purity and protection.
  • Traditional Festivals: During certain Japanese festivals and celebrations, the sakaki branches are adorned with auspicious decorations, further highlighting its cultural significance.

Landscape Use

  • Privacy Screening: With its dense, evergreen foliage, the sakaki tree is often used to create privacy screens and hedges in gardens and landscapes, providing a natural barrier and enhancing the visual appeal of outdoor spaces.
  • Wildlife Habitat: The sakaki tree’s ability to attract birds and other wildlife makes it a valuable addition to naturalistic landscapes, contributing to biodiversity and ecological balance.

Medicinal Use

  • Traditional Medicine: In traditional herbal medicine, certain parts of the sakaki tree are used for their purported medicinal properties, which include antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects.

Spiritual and Symbolic Use

  • Symbol of Purity: The sakaki tree is revered as a symbol of purity in Japanese culture, representing the innate beauty and sanctity of nature.
  • Folklore and Mythology: The sakaki tree is often featured in Japanese folklore and mythology, where it is associated with various legends and spiritual narratives, adding to its enigmatic allure.

Plant Care

Cultivating and maintaining a sakaki tree requires attention to several key aspects such as water, sunlight, fertilizer, soil, and pruning. Let’s explore each of these elements in detail to ensure the optimal growth and health of Cleyera japonica.


The sakaki tree prefers moist, well-drained soil and benefits from regular watering, especially during the establishment period. While it can tolerate short periods of drought once established, consistent moisture is crucial for promoting healthy growth and flowering. However, it is essential to avoid waterlogging, as excessive moisture can lead to root rot and other moisture-related issues.


Cleyera japonica thrives in partial shade to full sun conditions. It is adaptable to various light exposures, making it suitable for diverse garden settings. However, in regions with intense sunlight and warm temperatures, providing partial shade during the hottest part of the day can help prevent leaf scorch and maintain the plant’s vigor.


Applying a balanced, slow-release fertilizer designed for acid-loving plants in spring can provide the necessary nutrients for the sakaki tree’s growth and development. Additionally, incorporating organic matter into the soil during planting or as a top dressing can enhance soil fertility and support the tree’s overall health. Care should be taken to follow specific fertilizer recommendations based on soil tests and the tree’s growth stage.


The sakaki tree thrives in well-drained, slightly acidic soil with a pH range of 5.0 to 6.5. Amending the soil with organic matter, such as compost or peat moss, can improve its structure and fertility, creating an ideal growing environment for Cleyera japonica. While the plant is adaptable to different soil types, ensuring good drainage is crucial to prevent waterlogged conditions that can compromise root health.


Regular pruning can help maintain the sakaki tree’s desired shape, promote bushy growth, and remove any dead or diseased branches. Pruning is typically performed in late winter or early spring before the growing season begins. It involves removing overgrown or wayward branches, shaping the tree, and thinning out congested growth to enhance air circulation and light penetration.


The propagation of sakaki (Cleyera japonica) can be achieved through several methods, including seeds, cuttings, and air layering. Here’s an overview of these propagation techniques:

Seed Propagation

  • Harvesting: Collect ripe seeds from the sakaki tree in autumn, ensuring that the fruits have fully matured.
  • Seed Treatment: Scarify the seeds by nicking or sanding the seed coat to enhance germination. It is also beneficial to soak the seeds in water for 24 hours prior to sowing.
  • Sowing: Plant the seeds in a seed-starting mix or well-drained soil, maintaining consistent moisture and warmth for germination.

Stem Cutting Propagation

  • Cutting Preparation: Take 4-6 inch long semi-hardwood cuttings from healthy, disease-free branches of the sakaki tree during the active growing season.
  • Rooting Medium: Dip the cut ends of the stems in a rooting hormone powder to encourage root development, and then plant them in a well-draining potting mix.
  • Rooting Conditions: Provide consistently moist, humid conditions and warmth to facilitate the rooting process, typically achieved in a greenhouse or under propagation domes.

Air Layering

  • Process: Select a healthy, vigorous branch and make a shallow, upward-angled incision in the bark. Apply rooting hormone to the wounded area and wrap it with moist sphagnum moss, securing it with plastic wrap.
  • Root Formation: Over time, roots will develop within the moss, allowing for the establishment of a new root system. Once sufficient roots have formed, the rooted portion can be severed from the parent plant and potted up as a new individual.

Each propagation method offers its unique advantages, allowing for the efficient multiplication of sakaki trees to expand their presence in gardens and landscapes.

Container Popularity

The compact growth habit and adaptability of the sakaki tree make it well-suited for container cultivation, adding versatility to its uses in outdoor and indoor spaces. Here are some key reasons for the popularity of Cleyera japonica in containers:

  • Space-efficient: Sakaki trees can be grown in containers on patios, balconies, and small gardens, providing an ornamental focal point in limited spaces.
  • Portability: Container-grown sakaki trees can be moved and rearranged, allowing for flexibility in design and seasonal adjustments.
  • Decorative Enhancement: The lush foliage and fragrant flowers of Cleyera japonica add aesthetic appeal to outdoor living areas and indoor spaces, creating a charming green presence.

When cultivating sakaki trees in containers, it is essential to select a well-draining potting mix, provide adequate water and light, and consider the tree’s growth requirements to ensure its health and vitality.

Common Diseases

While sakaki trees are generally resilient, they can be susceptible to certain diseases and health issues. It is important to monitor the tree’s growth and appearance to detect and address any potential problems. Here are some common diseases that may affect Cleyera japonica:

Leaf Spot Diseases

Leaf spot diseases, caused by various fungal pathogens, can result in the development of circular or irregular spots on the sakaki tree’s leaves. These spots may appear as yellow, brown, or black lesions and can lead to defoliation and reduced plant vigor if left untreated.

Root Rot

Prolonged waterlogged conditions can predispose sakaki trees to root rot, a fungal disease that affects the roots and can result in wilting, leaf yellowing, and ultimately, plant decline. Proper drainage and avoiding overwatering are essential for preventing root rot.

Powdery Mildew

Powdery mildew, characterized by the presence of whitish, powdery growth on the leaves, stems, and buds, can affect sakaki trees, particularly in humid and crowded growing conditions. Good air circulation and cultural practices can help mitigate powdery mildew issues.


Anthracnose is a fungal disease that can cause leaf spots, cankers, and blight in sakaki trees, leading to aesthetic and physiological damage to the plant. Pruning to improve air circulation and utilizing disease-resistant cultivars can aid in anthracnose management.

Regular monitoring, proper cultural practices, and prompt intervention, if needed, are essential for maintaining the health and vitality of sakaki trees and mitigating the impact of potential diseases.

Disease Diagnosis

Diagnosing diseases in sakaki trees involves careful observation of symptoms, identification of causal agents, and implementation of appropriate management strategies. Here are key steps in disease diagnosis for Cleyera japonica:

Symptom Recognition

  • Leaf Symptoms: Monitor the leaves for spots, lesions, discoloration, distortion, or abnormal growth patterns.
  • Stem and Branch Symptoms: Inspect the stems and branches for cankers, dieback, or other structural abnormalities.
  • General Plant Health: Assess the overall vigor, growth pattern, and reproductive performance of the sakaki tree to detect potential disease issues.

Causal Agent Identification

  • Fungal Pathogens: If fungal diseases are suspected, such as powdery mildew or leaf spot, collect and examine samples of the affected plant parts to identify the specific pathogens responsible for the symptoms.
  • Environmental Stressors: Consider whether environmental factors, such as waterlogging, nutrient deficiencies, or extreme weather, may be contributing to the observed symptoms.

Management Strategies

  • Cultural Practices: Implement cultural management practices, such as improving drainage, adjusting watering practices, and enhancing plant nutrition, to address underlying issues.
  • Disease Control Measures: If necessary, apply targeted fungicides or other disease control treatments following proper diagnostic procedures and product recommendations.

By accurately diagnosing diseases and addressing underlying factors contributing to plant health issues, the overall resilience and vitality of sakaki trees can be maintained.

Common Pests

While sakaki trees are relatively resistant to pests, they can occasionally face challenges from certain insect and mite species that may affect their health and appearance. Here are some common pests that may infest Cleyera japonica:

Scale Insects

Scale insects are small, immobile pests that feed on the sap of sakaki trees, typically appearing as raised, waxy bumps on the branches and stems. Severe infestations can lead to reduced plant vigor and the development of sooty mold on the honeydew excreted by the scales.

Spider Mites

Spider mites are tiny arachnids that can infest sakaki trees, causing stippling, webbing, and leaf discoloration as a result of their feeding activity. Dry and dusty conditions can exacerbate spider mite problems, making proper moisture management crucial for prevention.


Certain caterpillar species may feed on the leaves of sakaki trees, leading to defoliation and aesthetic damage. Early detection and manual removal of caterpillars can help mitigate their impact.


Aphids are small, soft-bodied insects that can colonize sakaki trees, particularly on new growth, and may cause distortion, leaf curling, and honeydew secretion. Beneficial insects and natural predators can aid in controlling aphid populations.

Vigilant monitoring, regular inspection, and the implementation of integrated pest management strategies can help prevent and manage pest issues in sakaki trees, contributing to their overall health and vitality.

Botanist’s Tips

As a botanist, cultivating and studying sakaki trees provides valuable insights and opportunities for appreciation. Here are some tips for effectively caring and observing Cleyera japonica:

  • Cultural Exploration: Embrace the cultural and traditional significance of the sakaki tree, delving into its historical and spiritual connections to gain a deeper appreciation for its presence in gardens and landscapes.
  • Horticultural Experimentation: Explore different cultivation techniques, such as training sakaki trees into topiary forms or testing various soil amendments for optimal growth, to expand the understanding of this remarkable plant.
  • Observational Studies: Conduct detailed observations of sakaki trees in different environmental conditions, documenting their growth patterns, flower development, and interactions with wildlife to contribute to botanical knowledge.
  • Conservation Awareness: Advocate for the preservation and conservation of native sakaki tree populations, recognizing the ecological importance and cultural significance of this species.

By approaching the study and care of sakaki trees with an inquisitive and exploratory mindset, botanists can uncover new dimensions of understanding and appreciation for the botanical world.

Fun Facts

  • The sakaki tree, or Cleyera japonica, has been cultivated in Japan for centuries and is deeply ingrained in the country’s cultural heritage, reflecting the enduring appeal and significance of this plant.
  • In Shinto rituals, sakaki branches are used as offerings and talismans to purify sacred spaces and to symbolize the presence of deities, illustrating the plant’s central role in spiritual practices.
  • Cleyera japonica has been traditionally associated with themes of purity, protection, and longevity, representing enduring virtues that have contributed to its esteemed status in Japanese culture.
  • The fragrance of sakaki flowers adds to the sensory allure of this plant, enhancing its aesthetic appeal and making it a delightful addition to garden and landscape settings.
  • Sakaki trees are renowned for their adaptability and resilience, thriving in diverse climatic conditions and soil types, which underscores their versatility and robust nature in horticultural contexts.

Links to External Resources

For further exploration of sakaki trees (Cleyera japonica) and their cultural, horticultural, and ecological aspects, the following external resources offer valuable insights and information:

By engaging with these external resources, enthusiasts, horticulturists, and researchers can gain a multifaceted understanding of sakaki trees and their diverse significance in various contexts.

In conclusion, the sakaki tree (Cleyera japonica) stands as a testament to the enduring interplay between culture, nature, and human appreciation. Its status as a sacred plant in Japan, its versatile uses in horticulture, and the depth of its symbolism contribute to its enduring allure and relevance. Whether admired for its glossy foliage in a garden setting, utilized in ceremonial practices, or studied for its ecological contributions, the sakaki tree continues to captivate and inspire. As we continue to celebrate and conserve this remarkable species, we honor the intricate interconnections between plants and human cultures, enriching our understanding and appreciation of the natural world.

In creating this intricate and comprehensive guide on the sakaki tree (Cleyera japonica), the rich tapestry of its cultural, horticultural, and ecological significance comes to life, offering valuable insights and appreciation for this remarkable plant. Whether it is in the tranquil depths of a traditional garden, the vibrant tapestry of a ceremonial space, or the vivid allure of a well-tended landscape, the sakaki tree continues to inspire and captivate, weaving a timeless tale of reverence, beauty, and resilience.

By delving into the intricacies of the sakaki tree’s culture

Picture of Peter Taylors

Peter Taylors

Expert botanist who loves plants. His expertise spans taxonomy, plant ecology, and ethnobotany. An advocate for plant conservation, he mentors and educates future botanists, leaving a lasting impact on the field.