Foreign mystery plant has unusual foliage and flowers

  • Posted: Sunday, September 2, 2012 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Thursday, September 6, 2012 2:44 p.m.

In the past several years, considerable attention has been devoted in the South to trees that grow quickly, providing either a fast supply of shade or timber, or both. Here is a plant that is outstanding as a fast shade producer. It is a tropical species and isn’t native, so if your heart is set on a native species for fast shade, keep looking.

It comes from the damp forests of southeastern Asia and was recognized long ago as an odd sort of tree, revealing unusual foliage, flowers and fruits. It was imported into the southern USA back in the middle part of the 19th century and rapidly gained favor as an oddball sort of “gee-whiz” tree, perfect for planting in the middle of a sunny yard and watching it take off.

It has smooth, prominently green stems and twigs, which tend to be much thicker than the twigs on most trees you commonly see. Older plants, after attaining some size, will have smooth, perhaps streaked, gray bark, which is attractive. The foliage is spectacular; each leaf includes a major-league stalk, up to three feet long or so, with a flamboyant, bright green blade up to 2 feet across. The blades of very well developed leaves tend to be deeply lobed, often with five to seven deeply divided portions, forming thumby-looking projections on a big green hand. The leaves are deciduous, which means that if you have one of these, you will be doing some raking in the fall. The winter-time plants are strangely attractive, though, in a sort of skeletal green-stick kind of way.

The flowers, though small, are rather fragrant, held in clusters in the summer. Bees like them. Many of the flowers drop before setting fruit; the surviving flower ovaries mature and swell into unusual papery capsules that ultimately split open, still held together at the base, thus becoming rather oddly star-shaped and bearing a series of small seeds along the inner margins of the divisions. Crazy. The seeds are quite good at sprouting, and for this reason, the plants do, in fact, tend to get weedy – and potentially invasive. Not only that, older trees will frequently sprout at the base, which sometimes is a bit more than most home gardeners would have wanted. Now if you want one of these trees but you can’t wait for it to grow from seed, you can always take one of the fresh, green branches, sharpen it at the end and jab it down into the soil. I’ve seen vigorous, leafy trees produced by this time-saving trick.

This species is somewhat related to the tropical plant that gives us chocolate, and it is a bit more distantly related, the botanists say, to hollyhocks and okra.

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina.

(Answer: “Parasol tree,” Firmiana simplex)

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