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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.

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