I’ve got a definitive ID of the incredible blooming tree that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago . I wrote that it seemed to be in the Fabaceae family and I wondered if it might be some kind of sun loving acacia. No one had seen it flower in over thirty years.
It is in fact a Styphnolobium japonicum (sometimes known as a Saphora japonica) a tree that’s a native of China but naturalised in Japan where it was discovered by European plant collectors. It was brought to Britain by James Gordon in 1753 and you can still see one of the trees planted at Kew in 1760.
It’s packed full of medicinal properties and has a special place in Buddhist culture where it is known as the scholar or pagoda tree and was often planted outside temples. The young monks would have lessons beneath its canopy. In Jingshan Park in Beijing a large, old Styphnolobium japonicum is known as ‘The Guilty Scholar Tree’ . The last ruler of the Ming Dynasty , the Chongzhen Emperor allegedly hanged himself from the tree in 1644 after the imperial capital, Beijing, fell to rebel forces led by Li Zicheng. Today it’s probably more often seen used in bonsai than it is in gardens.
The reason no one has seen this particular one flower is that it doesn’t do so until it’s at least thirty years old, sometimes quite a bit older. This one is around 35 or so years old. The flowers are incredible and the whole canopy is alive with bees so I wasn’t surprised to discover that it’s recommended by The British Beekeepers Association as one of their ‘Trees For Bees’.
Planting a young Japanese Scholar Tree is probably for most of us something of a gift to the future one reason perhaps why it’s always been more of a tree for public parks than domestic gardens. The person who planted the Heworth tree is no longer with us but it’s likely people (and thousands of bees) wil be enjoying those flowers on a yearly basis from now on.