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Pagoda tree

This tree is infamous in Chinese culture; in folklore demons are said to be drawn to it. The last Ming Emporer, Chongzhen, hung himself from a pagoda tree after peasants stormed the Forbidden City in 1644.
Typical pea flowers of the pagoda tree

About Kew's pagoda trees

Introduced to Britain in 1753 by the famous nurseryman James Gordon, this tree was one of the first of the species in the country. It is also one of Kew's 'Old Lions' – a few surviving trees known to have been planted in Princess Augusta’s arboretum in 1762.

Now nearing the end of its life, Kew’s prized specimen underwent major cavity work on its main trunk in 1996 and is propped up on metal struts. You can see another specimen on the Cart Track next to Princess Walk.

Take a closer look

  • The brick pier protects an exposed root that was found when we broke out a damaged concrete 'filling' in a cavity – our team are like tree dentists, updating repairs until the tree can be helped no more – at which point it is reluctantly removed. This tree will probably only last another ten years.
  • As this tree ages, its bark thickens and grows corrugated – ending up similar to that of ash trees.
  • You'll notice a very twisted shape to this tree – but this habit of the species does not seem to be in response to anything in particular. It appears to be random.

Tree biology

Pagoda trees usually branch low down when grown in the open. But they can also form a tall, clean trunk.

The species doesn’t usually start flowering until after 30 - 40 years of growth. Although not widespread in Britain, it remains a popular ornamental tree due partly to its exotic name, and also to its unusual branches. The dark brown bark has broad ridges and the wood twists and turns.

Cultivation and uses

The pagoda tree is popular as an ornamental and for bonsai. Its durable timber is used in construction and for furniture. The pods are toxic, but produce extracts used as yellow and grey dyes in the silk and batik industries.

Studies by scientists in Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory have revealed that six previously unknown compounds are present in the leaves and fruits, which may have potential in Western medicine. This species is one of the 50 fundamental plants in Chinese medicine.

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Styphnolobium japonicum – previously known as Sophora japonica but recently reclassified, its common name may come from it often being planted at Buddhist temples.
  • Family: Leguminosae
  • Place of origin: China. This species is also widely planted in Japan.
  • Conservation status: its conservation status in China is not known, but pagoda trees are widely cultivated so the species is not threatened.
  • Date planted: 1762
  • Height: 7.3 m. This species grows up to 10-20 m tall.