1. Japanese Pagoda Tree

Sophora japonica- Styphnolobium japonicum: Japanese Pagoda Tree

Cultural Significance

The Japanese pagoda tree is included in some significant Chinese legends, and serves as a cultural and historical reference. As the official tree of Beijing, China, it demonstrates the common theme of aesthetic beauty shared between East and West. In its native China, the pagoda tree was typically planted around Buddhist temples.

As Buddhism spread into China, the tree was used as a grave-marker for Buddhist monks. In Chinese folklore and history, the pagoda tree was given a slightly negative association. Despite its use by Buddhists, the pagoda tree is traditionally thought to be inhabited by demons. The tree gained infamous status from its inclusion in the legend of the death of Chongzhen, the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty. In 1644 CE, Emperor Chongzhen is said to have hanged himself from a pagoda, as his palace was overtaken by peasants during a revolution.

Native Ecosystems

Despite its name the tree originates in China. Its original habitat consisted of Chinese mountain ranges, from which it was imported to Japan and extensively cultivated. The first specimens seen in the west were gained from Japanese sources in the 1750’s, hence its classification as a Japanese tree.

In the United States the tree is by and large considered non-invasive. The domestication of this tree makes it difficult for it to survive without human care. It is susceptible to certain diseases and pests, making it overall a fairly vulnerable species. The weakness of the wood itself causes the tree to be affected by strong weather. If not pruned properly, the branches will break under the weight of snow or in heavy winds. Because of its need of fairly intensive cultivation, Japanese pagoda tree is not recommended for an average or novice garden setting.

Beneficial Uses

The wood of pagoda tree is weak; a tendency common between trees bred for aesthetic enjoyment. While some parts of the pagoda tree are edible, the peas are toxic and should not be consumed. In addition to landscaping, the pagoda tree’s flowers have medicinal qualities. Dried flowers contain anti-hemorrhage and anti-hemostatic attributes.

Traditional Chinese medicine prescribes dried pagoda leaves to treat conditions from blood clots to hemorrhoids. Modern chemical analysis reveals that pagoda leaves contain flavonoids which have potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidative qualities. These chemicals, among others found in the pagoda flower are being tested to see if they are valuable for the prevention or treatment of strokes. The Japanese pagoda tree’s use as an ornamental or street tree is due to its ability to withstand urban pollutants and both acidic and alkaline soils.

Biological Characteristics

This is a medium-sized deciduous tree regularly used as an ornamental. It is characterized by its low, reachable branches and cream-colored flowers. The pagoda tree grows to a maximum height of 60 feet, and reaches a maximum width of 60-80 feet. Due to the pagoda tree’s low branches, the overall appearance of the tree is spherical to oval. Its crown is round adding to its globular form.

The bark of the trunk is generally composed of alternating ridges of light-brown and gray-brown layers. This gives the trunk a textured, striated appearance. Branches tend to take on an olive-green color and have noticeable blisters, made up of gas-exchanging lenticels. The leaves of the pagoda tree are a glossy-green during the growing season, which gives way to a lighter green or yellow in autumn. The leaves are compound, generally composed of 9-13 leaflets. The leaflets are ovate, pinnately veined, with sharp points at their ends. The compound leaf is 6-10 inches long with each leaflet measuring between 1-2 inches.

The pagoda tree is a member of the Family Fabaceae, commonly referred to as the Pea Family. Because of this, the flowers and fruit of the pagoda tree, share features associated with garden peas. The flower is a pleasant creamy-white color, or slightly yellow. Flowers grow in long panicles composed of individual flowers which hang from the branches. These flower-bunches range from 6-12 inches in length, depending on the number of flowers. After pollination, flowers give rise to fruit, which resemble a string of pearls in a green pod. These pearls bear a resemblance to typical garden peas, but may be yellow or brown in color.