Botany Blueprint: The Golden Rain Tree

Specimen #11: Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)

asy on the eyes and light in the wind, the golden rain tree’s seed cases are a perfect example of well-designed vessels. The inflated papery capsules balloon like iridescent bubbles, but do not mistake them for fragile travelers. The fruit’s fibrous skins are deceptively thick and durable, with three seams sealed to protect its seeds. This particular specimen arrived to me by way of a friend’s pocket, car glove-box, and tupperware hand-off on a jostling bar’s dance floor. The little lantern appeared to take no notice of the long journey.

The golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) traveled to the United States in 1809, and was first planted at Monticello. The seeds were one of a number of transatlantic seed exchanges between Thomas Jefferson and Madame de Tessé, his intimately documented French correspondent and fellow botanic connoisseur. In a letter dated 1811, Jefferson wrote to Tessé: “Since I had last the pleasure of writing to you … the Koelreuteria … is now growing. I cherish it with particular attentions, as it daily reminds me of the friendship with which you have honored me.” Jefferson’s botanic legacy has since spread across the country, embodied in trees that rain golden blossoms and rattle luminous fruits.

The golden rain tree’s seed cases persist on its branches for many months, and progress on a spectrum from chartreuse to rosy-tan. The tree releases its papery passengers in late autumn, when a fleet of capsules tumble into the wind like inflated parachutes, each holding several black seeds. Buoyant and light, the seed cases can navigate through both air and water (a dispersal strategy reflected in many inflated fruits). Their tightly veined skins are moderately flexible, so they will yield to circumstantial pressures but not break until they are ready — or, in this case, at the insistence of a naturalist with a camera.

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