Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Before I was ever a homeowner, I had a "wish list" of plants I wanted in my very own yard, including some trees. Little did I know that I would end up with a completely blank slate to work with in a new subdivision. This has presented its own set of unique opportunities and challenges over the last four years, working to improve the clay-filled substance that passes for soil in our area.
One of the concepts we stress at U of I Extension is using the "right plant for the right place". It just so happened that one of the trees on my "wish list", the Panicled Golden Raintree, Koelreuteria paniculata, is suitable to any soil type, including alkaline soil pH so common with clay soils. Plus they are wind and drought tolerant. The wind always blows at my house, and despite wet springs in recent years, it is not uncommon to have relatively little summer rain in this area. Following the "right plant for the right place" guideline, I had the perfect spot for this tree in my front yard.
You'll be relieved to know that what excited me about this tree had nothing to do with soil pH, wind or drought. The Panicled Golden Raintree is a flowering tree. But not just any flowering tree. It is one of the only trees to have yellow flowers and to flower in the summer. Most trees flower in the spring.
In late June or early July, the Panicled Golden Raintree produces thousands of bright yellow half inch wide flowers borne in twelve to fifteen inch long clusters called panicles. The flowers persist for about two weeks, followed by papery, two inch long lantern-shaped seed pods, which start out green and turn bronze by the fall and persist through the winter.
The Panicled Golden Raintree also has relatively few common pests and problems. The most notable is a tendency to fall victim to winter dieback during harsh winters, especially while young. Being relatively pest and problem free was another factor that earned this tree a spot on my "wish list".
For as many attributes this tree has going for it, you'd think it would be found more commonly in local nurseries. At the time I was looking to plant this tree, I couldn't find it anywhere. I will admit that the place I did finally find this tree was not where I would usually recommend people shop for trees. I found my Panicled Golden Raintree in a store on eBay.
Not quite sure what I was in for, I hesitated to buy a tree this way. I spent less than $10 on what I knew full well was a seedling. I didn't expect much. What arrived was a fairly decent sized seedling, about two feet tall, just starting to leaf out. I planted the seedling in a nice spot in the corner of the front yard and hoped I could prove my husband wrong, that this wasn't a colossal waste of time and money, and that we wouldn't be old and grey before this tree amounted to anything.
The first two years the tree didn't do much but produce a few leaves. The leaves by themselves are pretty, but I wanted flowers. The leaves are compound, meaning each true leaf is composed of many smaller leaflets. The leaflets have somewhat jagged edges, creating an overall lacy effect for the leaf.
The third year was the charm. Last summer my tree produced its first flowers! There weren't very many, but they were there. And in the three years since I had planted it, the tree had at least doubled in size. Panicled Golden Raintrees are known to be fast growing trees, with a maximum height and width of thirty to thirty five feet. My tree has a long way to go-- since it only stands a little over four feet tall at the moment.
Panicled Golden Raintrees are known to have a pleasing symmetrical rounded form at maturity. However, the road to this pleasing form is paved with a somewhat awkward appearance as the tree fills out. It may look lopsided one way or another from year to year which is perfectly normal.
It will also tend to produce multiple leaders when young. If you want a multi-stemmed tree then do nothing, otherwise remove the weakest stems and leave only one strong stem. My tree seems to want to have two to three stems, but I would like it to be single stemmed for a little while longer. When I'm ready for it to branch I'll just leave it alone and let nature take its course.
It's worth mentioning that in warmer climates, such as Zones 8 and 9, this tree may be considered invasive, essentially a "trash" tree. In these warmer climates the tree produces mass quantities of seed which by many accounts "sprout everywhere" much like maple seedlings in our area.
My husband has reluctantly admitted that he has enjoyed watching our Panicled Golden Raintree grow and finally produce flowers. I think it's safe to say he doesn't think planting a tree this small was a waste of time and money. Plus since the tree has already made an attempt at flowering, we probably won't have to wait until we're old and grey to witness the beauty this tree is capable of producing.