Fire Up the Fall Color with Chinese Flame Tree

Unusual seed capsules ignite a canopy of blazing beauty!
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Chinese flame trees are prized for their unusual papery seed capsules that resemble little Chinese lanterns.

Chinese flame trees are prized for their unusual papery seed capsules that resemble little Chinese lanterns.

Photo by: Image courtesy of the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Image courtesy of the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Chinese flame trees are prized for their unusual papery seed capsules, which resemble little Chinese lanterns. 

When someone mentions fall color, thoughts turn to the reds, oranges and yellows of oaks, maples and ginkgos. But leaf color alone doesn’t make for a gorgeous autumn spectacle. Look around at the colorful hues of grasses, bark—and especially those rose-colored Chinese lanterns dangling from the branches of the flame tree.

The highly visible Chinese flame tree, often used as a shade, street or specimen tree, blooms in early summer with showy upright clusters of bright yellow fragrant flowers. But the flame tree, Koelreuteria bipinnata, is best known for what follows: Its fall display of seed capsules–clusters of two-inch long papery husks resembling little Chinese lanterns, which are perfect for dried flower arrangements. Its branches are so dazzling in September and October that from a distance observers mistake them for leaves–only the tree’s leaves remain green, further offsetting the fall color of its seed capsules.

Native to China, the flame tree is deciduous and broad spreading, reaching 40 to 50 feet in height. Its species cousin, K. paniculata, or the golden raintree, blooms in May and June and in some areas of the country is considered invasive. For its part, the flame tree, despite its beauty, is considered aggressive and even a nuisance by some because of the seedlings that easily sprout as the seeds drop to the ground.

Yet, flame trees are easy to grow, adapt to most soils, lack pest and disease problems, and make nice shade trees – all reasons that they’re often found in public parks.

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