Tree Talk: Goldenrain knows how to put on a show

Mary Henry

Art imitates nature.

Broadway has the concept nailed. Curtain up, the plot develops, a song here, a dance there, then a big production number: spring bloom. Intermission: summer.

Second act, a song here, a dance there, and a grand finale that is not a repeat of the first act: autumn. Nature stages the performance with an explosion of blossom, ending with vivid autumn leaf color. A few plants find other ways to wow.

Native to China, Korea and Japan, Koelreuteria paniculate is commonly called Goldenrain Tree. In June and July, masses of brilliant flowers appear on long, almost wisteria-like clusters that dangle 8 to 14 inches. From a distance the tree looks like a cloud of gold. Up close and under the tree, you feel like you’re in a 14-carat cloud burst. The plentiful nectar produces a feast for honey bees.

Alas, this horticultural gem is, for the most part, undiscovered here. Famed horticulturalist Michael Dirr says, “This species never receives its due.”

It’s time to change that.

As city lots shrink, creating a demand for smaller trees to shade and embellish gardens, this tree is a perfect candidate. It grows to 20, occasionally 35 feet tall, assuming a rounded form in maturity, slightly wider than it is high. The leaves, resembling giant fern fronds, can be up to 15 inches long, carrying seven to 15 toothed leaflets, each 1 to 3 inches long and about a third that width. The leaves emerge purplish in color, aging into a dark green through summer. As winter approaches, the leaves turn yellow before dropping, but the spectacle that is the season’s show-stopper is the seed pods.

About the size of an English walnut and lantern-like in shape, the seed capsules emerge near red, then age to tan or brown and stay on, decorating the tree until winter. Finally, the weather batters them, shredding the papery pods. The hard, round black seeds inside fall to the ground.

These seeds are extremely easy to germinate. Collect the seeds before the pods drop.

Put them in a generous container of rich potting mix, placed so each of the seeds is about an inch from all others, cover with 2 inches of soil, soak them, set them outside and wait. You’ll have a crop of seedling Goldenrain Trees come spring. A 3- to 4-year-old tree will flower.

In the ground, K. paniculate is unfussy about soil, acid or alkaline. Once established, it is drought-tolerant, but will grow faster and more luxuriously given continuously moist but well-drained soil and a spot in full sunlight. It stands up to extremes of heat and cold.

If necessary, prune it gently to control the occasional errant branch. Other than that, allow this tree to assume its natural form. Perfect as a focal point in a small garden or as a street tree, Goldenrain Trees can be highly effective planted in a grove, given you have a large garden with space to fill.

Koelreuteria paniculata has two well-loved cousins: K. bipinnate (Chinese Flame Tree) and K. elegans (Flame gold). The two are similar but not equal to Goldenrain Tree in splendor. They’re more common to California, rare in most other parts of the country.

October is prime tree planting month. Put in the ground now, this tree — in fact, all trees — will benefit from our cool, wet, overcast winter, giving them time to adjust, root in and get ready to surge into new growth come spring.

With thought and planning, and mixed planting, the Autumn finale of your garden can be as spectacular as any part of the show. The options are enormous and here you have a great one.

As temperatures drop, days shorten, and skies darken … think Goldenrain!