A Scholar and a Tree
Across the street from our garden center, located on county road 512, stand four trees all the same. Their trunks are within inches of this well traveled road and their branches have been sheared by vehicular traffic for some thirty years. Yet, despite the efforts of larger trucks pruning back the overhead branches as they travel by, their stature has remained intact. And while their blemishes are evident, the bark being torn away showing their battle scars, these ornamental shade trees continue to impress most and ask thoughtful questions, particularly this time of year. They are, of course, Japanese Pagoda tees.
Sophora japonica, Japanese Pagoda has recently been redefined as part of a small genus, Styphnolobium, comprising three to four species of small trees and shrubs. While the vocabulary has gone back and forth in trade publications listing its name, there is no ambiguity as to the attributes of this ornamental beauty. Chinese Scholar tree, another one of its common names, is indigenous to China and Korea. Hardy to zone 4, Japanese Pagoda is a deciduous tree which can attain heights of forty to sixty feet tall and an equal width. Expect moderate to faster growth from this unique tree as it has been known to push out about two to three feet of new growth a year. A handsome tree, Japanese Pagoda is a fine choice for a lawn specimen as it allows filtered light through its rounded canopy.
The foliage and flowers are both something to marvel at. The leaves are alternate, pinnately compound providing a feather-like appearance. Lustrous green leaves start the season and hold through the fall. Thus, there is little fall color interest. However, a huge asset for this tree is the flowers. In late July into August, Chinese Scholar tree has gorgeous, creamy white to pale yellow flowers which are almost pea-like. Hanging on in six to twelve inch clusters, they are even slightly fragrant. Incidentally, Sophora japonica belongs to the family Fabaceae, a member of the pea family. Another interesting characteristic is the fruit. Pods, which start out bright green, continue to impress and proved useful during a plant ID class I had years ago. As the pod matures it changes to yellow and eventually finishes a Gulden’s mustard yellow-brown. An interesting emblem providing extended interest throughout the seasons.
Several cultivars exist and are becoming more available to the public. ‘Regent’ a cultivar selection from Princeton Nurseries seems to be the most attainable. Selected for its rapid growth, an ability to flower early and its straight growth habit have all made this a popular choice. Point of interest: Sophora (Styphnolobium) can take ten years or longer to flower. ‘Regent’ can do it in five to eight years. Another popular candidate for smaller landscape footprints is ‘Princeton Upright.’ Sharing all the positive characteristics of ‘Regent’ just in a more fastigiate form. ‘Pendula’ as you might expect is a strong weeping form that could be useful as a specimen near a pond, waterfall or such. However, it has been my experience that this variety does not flower as well and thus there is a huge list of other weeping trees that I would consider first. Finally, ‘Variegata’ has variegated foliage. It has been described by some as “sickly” and for many is best kept in an arboretum or in the hands of a serious collector hidden behind more beautiful plants.
Urban conditions which include, compacted soils, air pollution, road salt, arid environments and overall neglect contribute to the decision making of suggesting Japanese Pagoda tree as a suitable candidate as it can withstand such problems. Not that a city filled with Ginkgo trees isn’t fabulous in my mind however, it is nice to have another deciduous ornamental which will flower in the summer, albeit not a conifer. With such impressive qualities, it has always confounded me that the more popular choices for a garden tree include: Bradford pears, Thundercloud plums and weeping cherries. Seemingly more pedestrian in nature, why not have a tree that flowers at a time of year when the patio furniture is out and the pool is open?