The Graceful Golden Rain Tree

If you want a graceful, lacy tree festooned in midsummer with great sprays of yellow flowers, choose the golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) for your lawn or parkway. It is the ideal ornamental tree, not only for summer but for each month of the year.

When red-buds, wild plum, and forsythia bloom, the China tree, as it is sometimes called, sends forth its first red-gold, fern-like fronds. 

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These fill the tree with a rosy mist that resembles flowers, and you think it is actually in bloom. With the warming sun, these scrolls develop into lacy, dark-green compound leaves that throw a delightful, twinkling shade.

More than a month after other ornamental shrubs and fruit trees have spread their glory and fragrance, usually toward the end of June or the first two weeks in July, the great golden sprays of small blossoms turn these trees into golden clouds.

Yellow flowerets on panicles, sometimes 15” inches long, are marked with orange at their base. The fragrant petals make a pattern in purest gold as they fall to earth. 

Each tiny blossom makes a drop in the golden shower, and it is easy to see why the Chinese gave it the poetic name, golden rain tree.

“Pieces Of Gold” 

The tree, however, does not lose its power to fascinate with the falling of its “pieces of gold.” Very quickly, light green pods form, which grow to the size of a lime and are shaped like miniature Japanese lanterns. At this stage, children like to gather them to string them into necklaces.

Each of the three heart-shaped sides that form these almost air-tight pods protects a seed that matures as the pods turn color from tan to copper-red.

When the pod has ripened and is ready to fall, these seeds have turned dark brown, almost black, shiny peas.

Now the pods are crisp and brittle, and youngsters like to shuffle through the fallen “poppers,” crunching them as they go.

With the advance of autumn and colder temperatures, the leaves assume the brilliant yellow and bronze of fall coloring, and the trees are as lovely as any other time of year.

Even with the fall of the large compound leaves, the tree presents a new and beautiful sight. Now, one can see how gracefully and harmoniously the branches fork and twist in truly Oriental fashion, disclosing that ancestors have long flourished in China and Japan.

The tree always presents a symmetrical and artistic shape, though there is never a straight line in the trunk or limb. The pattern of the branches silhouetted against a winter sky is a study worthy of contemplation.

Someone has called the golden rain tree a baton conducting the symphony of the winds with the graceful motion of a master. 

Most beautiful is the sight of snow feathering, outlining the branches, and contrasting with the dark gray bark.

The Varnish Tree

Golden rain tree, also called varnish tree, is a hardy and adaptable species. It stands heat and drought well and grows in practically any soil. 

If trimmed up, it. It grows tall, even to 30’ or 40’  feet, but it is most artistic when allowed to a branch near the ground and spread out over low shrubbery.

The imposing botanical name is Koelreuteria paniculata. The first part comes from Joseph Gottlieb Koelreuter, one of the earliest naturalists, who was the second man to realize that plants, as well as animals, possess sex, and with this knowledge, he published a book on hybrid plants in 1760. 

The species name, paniculate, comes from the great panicles in which the flowers and seeds are borne. The golden rain tree is a traveler that has made itself at home in a far country and is happy here. 

William Maclure, scientist and philanthropist introduced it in the United States at the Owen Community of New Harmony, Indiana, in 1828.

On one of his world tours, he saw and loved the “Pride of China” and sent some seeds to his friend Thomas Say. 

Mr. Say planted them near the gate of the Maclure mansion, where they grew handsomely and were known as the “Gate Trees.” Others in New Harmony also planted seeds in their yards.

Now the avenues are lined with these lovely trees, and almost every lawn in this historic town on the lower Wabash has one or more golden rain trees occupying points of vantage.

New Harmony’s Annual Festival

To share the breath-taking sight of these golden rain trees in full bloom, New Harmony holds an Annual Festival late in June or early in July each year, when travelers from all over the country, as well as neighbors of the southwestern part of Indiana and nearby Illinois and Kentucky, visit the interesting old town.

Vachel Lindsay, who visited New Harmony on a lecture tour, was so impressed with the golden rain tree that he used it in his Golden Book of Springfield as the symbol of New Harmony and its ideals.

A more recent writer in New Harmony, Don Blair, has said of the golden rain tree: “Perhaps it is an error to consider a tree as a friend, but is not that which gives pleasure and comfort to us, our friend?”

44659 by Sarah Peters