Neil Sperry: Tree delivers glittering gold in the garden

Posted Saturday, Jun. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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You may have seen glimpses of golden yellow blooms on some North Texas shade trees these past couple of weeks. If so, you were seeing one of my favorites, golden raintree ( Koelreuteria paniculata). It and I go back several decades, and it all began for me in an old nursery in north Fort Worth.

Knowing that we would be moving, and that I’d have several places to plant new shade trees, I made a shopping list of the types that I wanted. Chinquapin oak. Bur oak. Lacey oak. Oklahoma redbud. Ginkgo. Little Gem Southern magnolia. I got ’em all.

But I was having trouble finding a golden raintree. That was long before Web searches, and many of the phone calls brought on long-distance toll fees, so when the clerk would say, “What kind of tree did you say? I’ve never heard of that,” I knew to ask them to search and that I’d call back. And I did call back, but I never “struck golden.” Until I called a beloved old north-side nursery, where the owner answered the phone, “Yep. We got ’em. 12 feet tall. 5-gallon cans.”

I was excited as I drove to his nursery. As an aside to my story, before I get to the punch line, he had so many other things that I spent far beyond my budget before I ever got back to the trees. Lamium, I still have as one of my groundcovers. Daylilies and iris. They’ve already bloomed for me this year, just as they’ve done for more than 35 years. I think about Mr. Germany and that fun trip to his nursery.

I wondered, as I drove there, what kind of shape those golden raintrees would be in. The numbers seemed pretty skewed — 12 feet is awfully tall for a 5-gallon pot. And yes, you’re way ahead of me, and you’re absolutely correct. Those trees were firmly rooted into the soil. Had been so for a year or two, it appeared. It was June, and they were growing. But desperate to find my tree, I bought one and asked that it be uprooted and trimmed.

I repotted it immediately when I got home, and it spent several months recovering as we finished construction of our house. It came back just fine, and it performed wonderfully — until our giant pecan trees shaded it out. But it served me faithfully for the 30 years that I had it.

Golden raintrees are native to northern China and Korea. They’re perfect as the second or third trees in an urban landscape, because they grow to a reserved 25 or 30 feet tall and wide at maturity. They’re good near patio homes, in side yards and medians — anywhere you’d like a medium-sized, dependable shade tree. They’re suited to a wide variety of soils, and they handle hot and dry weather quite well.

Of course, like any drought-tolerant tree, they will grow better when they’re kept uniformly moist. Apply the same fertilizer to your golden raintree that you would to your turfgrass and shrubs. For almost all of us, that’s going to be a quality all-nitrogen fertilizer with half or more of its nitrogen in slow-release form. And, as an added bonus on really special years, golden raintrees’ leaves may show really nice fall color.

Are there any drawbacks to this great little tree? Yes, a couple, but they’re both fairly minor. It produces Chinese-lanternlike fruit, each containing a bright black seed. Those seeds will get distributed through various parts of your landscape, and you’ll have a dozen or more seedlings to pull every year. (Or to dig and replant or give.) And second, golden raintrees occasionally host national conventions of boxelder bugs.

The insects don’t really cause any particular harm to the trees, but they mate night and day. It can lead to some unusual questions from kids and grandkids. Or not, because in the 30 years that I had my tree, I saw boxelder bugs on it only one time.

If you travel to South Texas, you’re likely to see another species of the same genus. Koelreuteria bipinata is the Southern golden raintree. It, too, produces the bright yellow blooms, but they’re followed by showy pink “lanterns” of fall fruit that are just as eye-catching as the flowers. Unfortunately, Southern golden raintree isn’t winter-hardy in North Texas.

Your biggest challenge in growing golden raintrees in your landscape is going to be the same one I faced back in the ’70s — finding one. I see them in better full-service nurseries, but sometimes you have to look for a while. The message from all this is to keep trying. They’re great little trees, and they’re worth all your effort.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.

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