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Glorious Goldenchains

By Todd Boland (Todd_BolandMay 12, 2012
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Goldenchains are one of the most graceful flowering trees yet are rarely grown in North America. Why is this tree so uncommon when it is reasonably hardy and tolerant to wind, salt and pollution? Europeans have enjoyed them for years, as have I, but most North Americans only wish they could grow them. Read on to find out why.

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(Editor's Note:  This article was originally published on March 28, 2009.  Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

It is not very often that I have been able to write about a plant that does better in my climate of Newfoundland, Canada than in most other areas of North America, but we do have a tree that we grow to perfection. It is called the goldImageenchain tree or Laburnum. This small-sized tree (to about 7 m) is a member of the pea family, Papilionaceae. There are only two species, the alpine goldenchain, L. alpinum and the common goldenchain, L. anagyroides and the hybrid between them called L. x watereri. As a rule, these trees are somewhat umbrella-like in habit. The bark is smooth and often green. The leaves are very distinct, being trifoliate like clover or strawberries. In May or June, plants produce a profusion of long 12- to 24-inch pendant chains of bright yellow pea-like flowers that are pleasantly fragrant. The flowers are somewhat reminiscent of Wisteria (albeit yellow not purple-blue) and often bloom at the same time. They do have a couple of negative points: they have no appreciable fall colour, the flowers are messy as they fade and, as a warning, all parts of the plant are extremely toxic. In the wild, they hail from south-central and south-eastern Europe, often in mountainous regions where soils are limestone-based.

The difference between the two species is subtle. Generally, the leaves of L. alpinum are smoother, less hairy on the undersides, than L. anagyroides. The growth habit of L. alpinum is more shrubby and shorter with flower racemes nearly twice the length of those of the other species. Laburnum alpinum is also a tad hardier. The habit of L. anagyroides is more stately as they often form single-trunk specimens. Both species have weeping forms called ‘Pendulum'. The best of both worlds is in their hybrid L. x watereri ‘Vossii', which has longer, more dense racemes than either parent species.

Goldenchains are extremely popular in Europe but are almost unknown in North America. Why is that? They are only reliably hardy to zone 5, which would preclude many areas of Imagecentral North America. However, even throughout the New England and southeastern states, this tree is uncommon or unknown. Goldenchains are tolerant to a wide variety of soil types (except poorly drained sites) and will withstand considerable wind exposure, roadside/coastal salt-spray and industrial pollution. They are easy to grow from seed and even large specimens will transplant with relative ease. In my region, few insects or disease seem to bother them. They seem the perfect tree! Despite this, Imageabout the only areas outside of Newfoundland and coastal Nova Scotia, where this tree is known to any degree is coastal Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The problem with this tree is that it dislikes hot summers. To thrive, they need temperate summers with little temperature extremes. That describes Newfoundland to a tee! Temperatures above 30 C (85 F) and this tree starts to suffer. We rarely reach that warm in Newfoundland but most of North America Imagecommonly exceeds that in summer. Europe, on the other hand, has less extreme summer heat than North America, hence Goldenchains thrive in their climate too. Another problem with Goldenchains is that their thin, smooth bark makes them susceptible to winter bark splitting under sunny conditions. Newfoundland, coastal Pacific Northwest and much of Europe have such cloudy winters that bark splitting rarely causes a problem.

So I hate to say that most North American gardeners will have to enjoy this tree vicariously through us who hail from cool summer-cloudy winter regions. As a consolation, many North American gardeners can grow a wider diversity of ornamental plants than I can, so please forgive my gloating in my ability to grow this wonderful flowering tree!


  About Todd Boland  
Todd BolandI reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
2 in hot & dry New Mexico... dulce88 0 3 May 16, 2012 7:28 PM
Glorious Goldenchains WeeNel 0 6 May 15, 2012 2:27 PM
No blooms this year ted_lanzo 3 32 May 15, 2012 7:37 AM
I've tried, and tried again... Lily_love 4 23 May 15, 2012 5:23 AM
Goldenchain in Nova Scotia eastjack 0 2 May 14, 2012 5:03 PM
Goldenchain trees - Lake Ontario delbertyoung56m 0 5 May 14, 2012 3:52 PM
Colour scheme with laburnum Fusions 0 3 May 14, 2012 3:42 PM
Maine has them lacefairy 4 24 May 14, 2012 12:17 PM
not hardy in my zone 5a garden cheerpeople 4 70 May 14, 2012 4:13 AM
Goldenchains DO exist Here LSchnick 1 52 May 12, 2010 1:08 PM
Golden Chaintree crickethillct 1 20 May 12, 2010 3:35 AM
Goldenchain Tree crickethillct 0 17 May 10, 2010 7:37 PM
Consider Planting Natives naturesown 0 32 May 10, 2010 3:15 PM
Austria Maria 0 7 May 10, 2010 11:08 AM
Goldenchain "Aha!" moment paulownia_lover 0 19 May 10, 2010 11:00 AM
Heat Intolerance PinetopPlanter 0 38 May 10, 2010 9:01 AM
Pretty but comes with health warning imi 0 36 May 10, 2010 6:56 AM
Pretty but messy lovedirtynails 1 38 May 10, 2010 6:31 AM
Longwood Gardens .... Gitagal 2 75 May 10, 2010 5:13 AM
Goldenchain BryGuy73 1 28 Dec 23, 2009 4:48 PM
A little bit of gloating ..... lortay 2 31 Apr 20, 2009 2:14 PM
Jealousy DreamOfSpring 22 150 Mar 31, 2009 4:54 AM
Why I'm grateful for lousy summers! pix4kix 0 23 Mar 30, 2009 10:51 PM
goldenchain heather2 1 36 Mar 30, 2009 8:53 PM
how do i slip plants to be replanted chuckrac 0 26 Mar 30, 2009 3:28 PM
Goldenchain Trees Tall_Shadow 1 46 Mar 30, 2009 1:59 PM
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