PLANT OF THE WEEK #88: Koelreuteria paniculata

The very first time I recall hearing the name Koelreuteria was at Sissinghurst, where there was a comically lame specimen in the cottage garden.  No one seeing it would ever be tempted to grow one.  Memory may be adding layers of lameness, but my recollection is of a single, leaning Dr. Suessian stem to about six metres tall, terminated by an ailing tuft of foliage.

But my next encounter was at the extreme opposite end of the appeal-spectrum.  This time, in a garden in Castlemaine, Victoria, small trees of domed outline, as wide as they were high, carried some early autumn foliage peppered with paper-lantern seedheads. I was convinced I’d discovered by new go-to small tree for hot, dry environments.

Autumn foliage of Koelreuteria providing background colour to this pic of Japanese forest grass

Golden rain tree has a lot going for it.  The deciduous pinnate foliage starts out slightly pink-tinged, quickly ripening to a fresh lime green, then deepening as the summer goes on.  Some time about mid summer, each growth point is terminated by a great panicle of small yellow flowers.  From a distance you could think you were looking at a wattle in bloom.  The flowers last for weeks, and a proportion of them develop into inflated paper-bladder seed pods that are both triangular in shape and cross section. In my specimens, due either to genetics or climate, these are a bright lipstick pinky-red from the moment they start to develop, though on many trees I see elsewhere they remain green.

Their branching structure isn’t particularly predictable, which limits their use where uniformity is desired.  But where it’s not (and I like my trees as distinct individuals), they’re appealingly idiosyncratic, and can be trained from early age as single-trunked specimens that branch at a certain point, or as multi-stemmed plants (a look which is finally taking off in response to this developing movement of naturalistic planting design, and is thankfully being celebrated by some growers).

Most of the specimens of golden rain tree that you see about the place are 4 – 6m tall, and depending on where they’re growing, can achieve about the same in width.  There simply aren’t enough small trees that form umbrageous canopies, so this is a big plus, in my opinion.  I find them reasonably fast growing, though a quick google reveals the Blerick tree farm describing it as a ‘fast growing, deciduous tree’ and Speciality trees stating that it is ‘an elegant, slow-growing small tree’.

Rather unconvincing shot of the flowers. Most tree sellers describe it as ‘showy’. I think that’s a bit of an overstatement. But its merits as a drought tolerant, ornamental small tree are undeniable

Of course, with all those pros, there must be a few cons. The golden rain tree loses points, in my view, by hanging onto its lantern seed heads after shedding its foliage, by then usually brown, such that you’re occasionally tempted to try and deadhead them (though so far I’ve never acted on the temptation).  Also, my plants (which may not be broadly representative) respond to moderate drought by folding their leaflets down vertically, against all good design instincts that says that a pretty pinnate leaf should hold itself out flat for best aesthetic advantage.  

But the biggest disadvantage is that in subtropical zones, or the warmest of warm temperate areas, the golden rain tree has proven itself to be, to a degree, invasive.  But that doesn’t mean that those of us in the cooler states should do anything but welcome and celebrate its drought tolerance, and fabulously distinct seasonal offerings.

Does it self-sow for you, where you are? And does it reliably colour up in autumn? Do you get coloured seed pods or are they just plain green?

Discussion

  1. We had a beautiful one in my back yard when we moved to our house in Bentleigh. Unfortunately in the subsequent 8 years it got absolutely destroyed by possums. We got arborists in and tried on a number of occasions to isolate it, but to no avail. After one attempt I went out the following week to find a mum and baby brushtail looking down at me as if to say 2m? I can clear 2m eaaasily for this! Unfortunately we had to make the decision to remove it recently as most of the branches had been killed and there was only a little epicormic growth which would only last 2 minutes before being eaten. It was a sad day. I’m hoping the recent addition of a Brittany spaniel to the family, will help protect the Jacaranda I’ve replaced it with. I’ve always been in love with that mass of purple flowers!

  2. So jealous of your red seed pods. Ours are green, drying to brown, but still very decorative. Beautiful autumn leaf colour but leaves don’t hold well in the wind.
    There is, or perhaps once was, a beautiful example on the south edge of Melbourne Botanical Gardens which was where I first became aware of it.

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