Plant stories: Japanese pagoda tree

Despite the sometimes heavy rain we enjoyed our recent visit to Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London very much – the Temperate House has been re-opened; our friends took us to the remarkable paintings of Marianne North (1830-90; no photos allowed so click on the link to see the amazing interior of the gallery); the Princess of Wales Conservatory … and right beside The Hive art installation was a tree covered in a mass of fine white blossoms.

japanese pagoda tree3 - Copy

Japanese pagoda tree at Kew. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Turns out this Japanese pagoda tree is one of the few remaining trees that was planted in the original 9-acre botanic gardens in about 1760! This tree is one of five imported for Kew by James Gordon (1708-80), a famous nurseryman of the time, and who introduced the tree to the UK in 1753, bringing it from Japan. He was also the first person to successfully germinate the seeds of the maidenhair tree or Ginkgo biloba from China and the specimen he gave Kew is another heritage tree still growing there.

Actually native to China and Korea, the Japanese pagoda tree was often seen planted in the grounds of Buddhist temples in Japan and collected by English botanists there which is how it got its common name. The Kew signboard says it’s often grown as ornamental, thanks to those masses of delicate flowers, but it is also used for timber, furniture, medicine and food. A yellow dye can be extracted from the seedpods and is commonly used for silks and batik.

japanese pagoda tree - Copy

Daresay I’ll need some support when I’m 258 years old! Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Latin name of the tree – originally Sophora japonica – changed in 2006 to Styphnolobium japonicum based on information collected from DNA sequences by Kew scientists.

I’m not sure if The Hive was placed near this tree deliberately, but the flowers are certainly a magnet for bees. We could hear the buzz, even on a wet day.

japanese pagoda tree4 - Copy

The tree flowers in late summer making it valuable to bees. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Hive is a fascinating place, an artwork hooked up to a real beehive in the grounds to create an immersive experience for visitors.

kew-hive2 - Copy

Wolfgang Buttress originally created The Hive for the UK Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo.
It’s 17m tall and constructed from 170,000 aluminium parts and 1,000 LED lights, and can be entered on two levels. Photo: Sandra Simpson