RIGHT IN OUR BACKYARD: Want To Get Smart? Sit Under A Tree

But not just any old tree.  I’m talking about the “scholar” tree – aka the Pagoda tree.

Published November 23, 2014 5:17 PM
4 min read


scholar-tree-THBut not just any old tree.  I’m talking about the “scholar” tree – aka the Pagoda tree.

By Bill Lawyer    

scholar-tree-RTPBut not just any old tree.  I’m talking about the “scholar” tree – aka the Pagoda tree.  

This tree’s so smart that it has two Latin names: Sophora japonica and Styphnolobium japonicum.  

Well, actually the first of those is what the tree was known as for many years. Botanists and horticulturalist, however, have been using DNA and other modern technologies in recent years to clarify how plants are related to one another. So now they’ve determined that the scholar tree is actually a separate genus from the other Sophoras. And they’ve even determined that the trees, despite their species names, are not originally from Japan – more likely central China.  

Regardless of which genus it is, the scholar tree, like many other plants around the world, is a member of the legume family. That means its flowers look like bean flowers, and its seeds are in pods.  

So, how did this “double-named” tree get to be known as the Pagoda or Scholar tree?  

In 1995, Leslie Turek wrote a detailed and thoroughly documented treatise on the subject for a Radcliffe Seminars course, “Plants In Historic Landscapes.”  

Because of the trees’ beautiful, often semi-weeping branches, creamy flowers, and seedpods that look like strings of green pearls (pearls of wisdom?), the trees were planted on the site of Buddhist temples. These temples were built in the architectural style of pagodas – tiered towers with multiple eaves. And, the trees were often planted as memorials to honored government officials (known in China as scholars).  

Buddhist monks would often be seen contemplating the mysteries of existence and the meaning of life – under the bright green leaves of the scholar tree.

When the first Jesuit missionaries went into China in the 18th century, they were so impressed by the trees that they brought some seeds and plants back to Paris, where they were studied and planted in the Jardin du Roi. Interestingly enough, they travelled along with another now-popular tree – the Goldenrain.  

scholar-tree-flowersBy the early 19th century, scholar trees were being brought to the United States. They were planted widely throughout the northeast. Turek reported that a tree planted in Longwood Gardens in the mid-19th century was still alive in the 1990s – with a trunk circumference of 13 feet, seven inches. (It was still going strong in 2013.)

Turek also reported that as late as the mid-20th century it was rare to encounter a scholar tree anywhere other than in botanical gardens such as the New York Botanical Garden and the Arnold Arboretum of Boston.  

At some point, however, a number of scholar trees got planted in my neighborhood here in Rye. At the Playland pool parking lot there’s an entire row of scholar trees on the south side, along with a couple of others growing along the west side.  

And, growing almost directly across the path from Rye Town Park’s middle beach entrance is a very healthy and attractive specimen.  

In Harrison Flint’s “Landscape Plants for Eastern North America” (1983), the author notes that “improved cultivars such as ‘Regent’ and ‘Princeton Upright’ now are well suited physically for planting along city streets.” Like other varieties of scholar trees, these are well adapted to the compacted soil, air pollution, road salt, and limited root runs of urban habitats.  

Turek noted that the dead elm trees of Harvard Yard were replaced with scholar trees.  

The Urban Horticulture Institute of Cornell University includes the scholar tree in its “Recommended Urban Trees” publication. Among the listed attributes are: creamy white, showy flowers with 6- to 12-inch clusters; bright green, changing to yellow brown pods in clusters, persisting into winter; and, lustrous bright green foliage in summer, becoming yellowish in late fall.  

So if this old world starts getting you down, don’t go “up on the roof,” find yourself a scholar tree, sit under it, and see if it helps you make some sense of it all – right in our backyard. I feel smarter just writing about it. 



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