Kiri Tree: A reborn phoenix for devastated forests?

Kiri Tree Flower

The kiri tree, sometimes called the phoenix tree or princess tree, is a native of China that is extensively cultivated in many parts of Asia. This extremely fast-growing tree produced a pale, very light hardwood that is used in making furniture and musical instruments, among other things. At one time, in traditional China, the custom was to plant a kiri tree when a girl was born, and then harvest it to make the clothing chest for her dowry when she was in her teens.

In its first year, the kiri tree can grow to 10-12 meters in height. After 5-7 years, it can be 20 meters or taller, and is ready to be harvested. This is as opposed to the Douglas fir, which requires 80 years or more to be ready for harvesting. The kiri tree’s enormous leaves, often up to a meter wide, are excellent at carbon capturing. In it’s brief lifespan before harvesting, one of these trees can capture up to 2.5 tons of carbon. On a plantation of 3 million trees, like the one planned for near Reno, Nevada, that amounts to over 7 million tons of carbon sequestered from the atmosphere over the 5-7 year growth cycle of the trees.

After harvesting, the trees can regenerate from their stumps, which earned them the “Phoenix Tree” appellation. They grow well in poor soil, and even help rejuvenate the soil be breaking it up and adding organic material to it. They are a very thirsty plant, however, and require 180 frost-free days for proper growth.

The kiri tree can provide lumber for building material in as little as three years. At this age, they are also suitable for pulp and paper productions. The wood they produce is very strong and light, suitable for building materials, furniture, cabinetry, plywood, and musical instruments.

princess tree

When used for forestation projects, especially in developing countries, the kiri can quickly provide housing materials for local building projects, but it can also provide wood and wood products for the export market, bringing in often-needed foreign currency. The incredible amount of carbon each tree can sequester can also be used as a commodity, in carbon trading arrangements.

As has been mentioned earlier, the kiri tree requires a great deal of water, and its use in arid conditions in Nevada is somewhat questionable. Beyond that, though, the various forestation projects ongoing are planting kiri in non-native environments. This can adversely affect bio-diversity as they crowd out native species, and at least one variant of the kiri has been classified as an invasive species. There is always a danger when introducing non-native species, which has played out again and again. Witness the kudzu. Like the kudzu, the kiri is being hailed as potential boon.

There are several kiri projects in either the planning stages or early development. It will interesting to see how well these trees live up to their promise, and how they can assist ongoing efforts to provide economic growth in a sustainable fashion. Should they live up to a substantial portion of their hype, then they will be a valuable addition to the toolbox as we try to stave off the damage we have done to the environment, and each other.

Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.