Add a touch of the tropics to the garden and luxuriate in the shade of a Chinese parasol tree, Firmiana simplex.
China is the world’s warehouse for trees of ornamental and economic value. One outstanding treasure, Firmiana simplex, hails from the temperate areas of China and Japan with a climate similar to the southeastern United States and USDA hardiness zones 7-10.
Firmiana simplex is classified in the Sterculiaceae family aka cacao family.
Firmiana simplex is a fast-growing deciduous tree, 30-40 feet tall with a rounded canopy spreading 15-20 feet. The rich green maple-like lobed leaves can be a foot long and as wide.
Leaves overlap creating dense shade. The fall foliage is yellow and stands in complement to the green trunk. To some the welcome leaf shade of summer becomes lawn litter in fall.
Star-shaped yellow-green flowers appear on 10-20 inch long panicles at the tip of branches in midsummer.
The smooth thin bright green bark is attractive all year. Lenticels and branch scars add decoration as well.
In late summer papery parasols cover the canopy. The little umbrellas are the open pod containing seed. The parasols change color from pinkish-cream to cinnamon. Dried parasols are added to everlasting arrangements.
Although Firmiana simplex will tolerate woodland shade, a sunny location yields the best crown development, flowering, and fruiting. The tree adapts to all soil textures preferring moist well-drained soil. When pods split open a brown fluid looking like varnish is released, hence the common name varnish tree.
Being large leaved, the Chinese parasol tree needs to be planted in an area protected from high winds.
The Chinese parasol self-seeds and has become mildly invasive in some areas. A thick layer of mulch placed around the tree’s base thwarts seedlings.
Gardeners propagate the tree easily from seed without stratification or scarification. Seeds, in small quantities or enough to seed a plantation, are available online.
The Chinese parasol tree can be purchased from the following mail-order nurseries:
The tree is generally free of insect pests and diseases. However, scale insects and nectria canker, a fungal disease, can occur.
In the orient many parts of the Chinese parasol tree are used for products. Bark fibers make cordage and cloth. Leaves and fiber create a hair wash. The wood is used to make furniture, coffins and the sounding board in Chinese musical instruments.
In the United States the ornamental tree is often found as a specimen at botanical gardens and arboreta. Homeowners plant the Chinese parasol for shade and municipalities use it as a street tree and at office parks.
The fanciful tree provides fun for the whole family from fanning each other with large leaves to playing with parasol seedpods for pixies.