Chinese parasol tree
The name 'Chinese Parasol Tree' is enough to conjure up romantic visions of the 'Far East' - complete with European colonials draped in Victorian layers shielding themselves from a tropical sun with dancing paper parasols. While Firmiana simplex, the Chinese Parasol Tree, certainly looks and sounds tropical, it is actually not a native of the true tropics, but is a fascinating tree from more temperate areas of China and Japan - areas more similar in climate to the southeastern US than the true tropics of the world. Chinese Parasol Tree is a unique tree that adds an exotic flavor to the landscape - with its strikingly smooth green bark, its wide, lush leaves, and showy, distinctive 'parasol' fruit capsules.
Firmiana simplex is a large, deciduous tree, 20 to 40 feet in height, that develops a bold textured, rounded canopy. The leaves are exceptionally large (often as long as a foot and nearly as wide!), somewhat maple-like in shape, and a deep grass green. This remarkable, exotic foliage is found on a tree hardy in the Piedmont and coastal plain of the southeastern US, making it a useful addition to landscapes or gardens where a tropical effect is desired (imagine it as a shade tree near a walkway or patio at a summer retreat home). Foliage may develop a bright canary yellow fall color but this character is not always consistent.
Firmiana simplex flowers in early to mid-summer with long clusters of small, yellow-green flowers that are rather inconspicuous individually but are quite showy as the 2 foot long clusters arch up and out from the foliage at the ends of the branches. The bark is beautiful - a surprisingly smooth, bright moss green - and quite wonderful in its own right. Firmiana's bark makes a striking foil for variegated, climbing vines - a way to create yet another element of tropical ambience. As you follow such a vine up the trunk with your eyes in late summer, you are treated to a wonderful surprise - the canopy bedecked with hundreds of miniature 'parasols' dangling overhead. These 'parasols' are actually the papery outer skins of Firmiana's fruit which separate and pull away from the seed inside, but remain draped from the fruit stem around the seed, and thus resemble tiny umbrellas, lampshades or parasols. In late summer and early fall, the parasols are a fresh cream color tinged with pink and green, but as they age and dry, the capsules turn a warm cinnamon tan. The dried parasols are excellent additions to dried, cut flower arrangements.
Firmiana simplex is one of the trees brought from Asia in the early heydey of plant collecting in the late 1700's. It is propagated from seed which germinates easily without any special treatment. Chinese Parasol Tree is not commonly available but may be seen in arboreta and botanic gardens and can be purchased from a few specialty mail order nurseries. It has performed well in the Piedmont clays at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) and needs full sun for best canopy development, flowering and fruiting.
Chinese Parasol Tree is a wonderful special interest tree of unusual texture that is a great choice to bring a stroke of the tropics to gardens in need of fresh character applied with a bold hand. It is well worth the hunt through specialty catalogs to find this exotic yet reliable jewel of a tree. Come out to The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) to find Chinese Parasol Tree across from the Stewartia collection at the west entrance to the Winter Garden. As you stand underneath and gaze up at Firmiana's little parasols with the thick air of late summer clinging around you, if you half-close your eyes, you can just make out those long-gone Victorians, standing layered in damasks, fanning themselves, and twirling their parasols under a far-off tropical sun.