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Pagoda Trees in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

In this part of the world, most of the truly spectacular flowering trees bloom in spring.  The redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, and the empress trees all burst into blossom months ago. Do any trees flower in the very heart of summer?  Well, actually all sorts of trees flower now, but many of them have tiny blossoms or green flowers which are not easily seen.  The pagoda tree however (Styphnolobium japonicum) is not so modest: during the end of July and the beginning of August the trees can be found covered with bursting clusters of off-white flowers.

The Pagoda Tree or “Chinese Scholar Tree” (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees obtained their English name because they were planted around Buddhist temples throughout East Asia. The species name “japonicum” is a complete misnomer—the trees actually originate in China and were imported to Japan (where they first came to the attention of botanists).  In English the trees are also known as scholar trees or “Sophoras.”

Seed Pods on the The Pagoda Tree (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees grow slowly but they can eventually become large growing up to 10-20 m tall (30-60 ft) with the same breadth.  They are members of the sweetpea family, which becomes evident in autumn when the trees are festooned with strange long seedpods which resemble huge yellow snow peas. Like other popular ornamental city trees, the pagoda tree can tolerate high pollution and poor soil quality.

A memorial stone where the last Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself (the actual tree was uprooted and killed during the Cultural Revolution)

In China, the pagoda tree is esteemed for its beauty but it has a more sinister reputation than it does here. In 1644, a peasant army was storming the Forbidden City after conquering all Imperial resistance.  The Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming Emperor, ordered a lavish banquet for all of the women of his family.  When the meal was finished he killed his wives, concubines, and daughters with a sword and then went outside and hanged himself on a pagoda tree.  The actual tree lived a long prosperous life but was uprooted and killed. Even the Chinese name 槐 is somewhat sinister, combining the characters for wood and demon.  This is partially because the pagoda tree does not suffer other trees to live near it in its native forests and partly because of harrowing old Chinese myths about families that died when living in houses made of pagoda tree wood.


Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

As the world starts to awaken for spring the first trees begin to come into bud.  Here in the east coast of North America one sort of early-blooming tree particularly stands out along the highways because of its bright purple-pink blossoms.  It is the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) a hardy small tree native to eastern North America.  Although it is native to deciduous woodlands from the Atlantic coast to Oklahoma and from southern Canada down to northern Mexico, it has been grown elsewhere as an ornamental tree.

Cercis siliquastrum in Greece (a stunning photo by Waqas Ahmed)

The eastern redbud is a member of the Cercis genus, (part of the pea family Fabaceae) which consists of approximately ten species which live in a temperate belt stretching west from China all the way around the world to California.  Probably the most well-known member of the family is the beautiful Mediterranean redbud, Cercis siliquastrum, a 10-15 meter (30-45 feet) tree which lives from southern Spain and France to Syria and Israel. The tree has lovely magenta flowers in spring and its tangy buds have featured in salads or fritters for centuries, however the little Mediterranean redbud is most famous to Christians as the tree upon which Judas hanged himself when the agony of his betrayal grew too great for him to live with.

Aagh! Why you gotta be that way, religion?

Of course I’m cheating somewhat by writing about the eastern redbud a whole month before it blooms here in Brooklyn, but it should be flowering soon (or now) in the south. Additionally, if you live in eastern China, Yunnan, South Asia, Persia, Asia Minor, middle-to-southern Europe, or California, there will be some sort of native redbud to watch for as well. Now that you (and the larger portion of humanity) know to watch for it, you will be alert during the rest of early spring when its slender boughs of brilliant purple-pink stand out against the gray-brown and the pale green. It is a short-lived and singular grace note to the season.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2023