Sunday, July 29, 2007

Japanese Pagoda Tree

Dr. David Hosack is best known to history for the death of a famous patient. He ministered to Alexander Hamilton after Hamilton's duel with Aaron Burr. But Hosack had more success as high-profile botanist than high-profile physician. This Columbia College professor established the country's first botanical garden in 1801. His garden, now the site of Rockefeller Center, contained the first Japanese pagoda tree recorded in the U.S.(1) The original tree no longer exists, but Japanese pagoda trees have had a successful career in this country as shade trees.

Plainfield has small numbers of pagoda trees scattered around town as street trees, and they are in bloom now. The largest example I know is on Central Avenue between Second and Front Streets against Cooper's Office Furniture store. This nicely shaped tree has a trunk diameter of more than two feet.

Another handsome example is in the curbside strip at 1325 Evergreen Avenue, just to the right of the front walk as you face the house.

In the 1100 block of Park Avenue, opposite 1106, is another attractive pagoda tree, photographed in bloom on July 25.

Pagoda trees have been cultivated in the Orient for thousands of years. They were often planted near Buddhist temples. A gracefully shaped tree with delicate, feathery foliage, the pagoda tree is largely pest-free and is tolerant of dry soil and pollution --- very well suited to be a street tree. It offers the great advantage of flowering in midsummer, when few other trees are in bloom. Its fruit also is ornamental, resembling a bright green string of shrink-wrapped peas.

The tree grows quite large. Martha's Vineyard claims to have the oldest and largest example in North America. The island's giant pagoda tree was transported from the Orient in a flower pot in 1837 by a sea captain. He planted it in front of his new house in the center of Edgartown, where it still stands. The tree now has a diameter of about 7 feet at breast height. The telephone pole in the photograph passing between two of the tree's limbs provides a sense of scale.

The Japanese pagoda tree has a confusing overabundance of names. The tree originates from China, not Japan, and is also known as Chinese scholar tree. To add to the confusion, the botanical name was changed several years ago from Sophora japonica to Styphnolobium japonicum.

More on Bradford pears:

John Louise, chief of the Plainfield Shade Tree Bureau, tells me that his men don't call Bradford pears by their name. They call them "overtime trees". Another one of them split recently in front of 1433 Evergreen Avenue, losing a large limb. The wound, depicted below, shows bark trapped in what was the tight angle between limb and trunk. That trapped bark prevented the wood of those two parts from knitting together to make a solidly constructed tree, leading to the splitting so typical of Bradford pears.


The New York Times recently ran a front-page article on the existential threat to the baseball bat tree posed by an insect pest, emerald ash borer. I plan a posting on Plainfield's ashes and would appreciate hearing about noteworthy specimens.

(1) Leslie Turek "Plants in Historic Landscapes", Radcliffe Seminars, 1995 (

Copyright Gregory Palermo


Crescent Area Neighborhood Association said...

Dr. Palermo:

Thanks so much for your blog. I mostly appreciate the easy, and poetic!, description of our trees. You have written about some of the trees my son and I often admire in our walks. Thanks to you now he, and I, know trees by their name and their background; an incredible asset for someone who grow up in a foreign country and a 7 year old. Thanks.
Maria Pellum and Andres Martinez

Jo-Ann Bandomer said...

We've lived in Plainfield for 36+ years, and have always admired the architecture of our homes. It's so nice to notice all the lovely special trees that adorn our streets. Plainfield is a special place, thanks for identifying and writing so beautifully about our trees. They were planted purposely for their beauty and it's nice to recognize them now. Thank you for your wonderful blog, I've shared it with friends. Jo-Ann Bandomer

Brett in Richmond VA said...

What a great blog! I really like the style. I'm a student of horticulture and this blog is helping me tremendously to learn about trees. Thanks!