For this week’s Friday Profile, I introduce you to the Chinese flame tree. It comes from the goldenrain or Koelreuteria family of trees. A true goldenrain (Koelreuteria paniculata) has yellow blooms, but the Chinese flame version (Koelreuteria bipinata) is the one that prompts a flurry of “Randy, what’s that tree?” questions, especially in November.
Most people admire and desire the pink- or salmon-colored seed pods (modified bracts) displayed by Chinese flame trees in the fall. But as the scientific names above suggest, there can be some confusion about them, and both varieties are commonly referred to as goldenrain trees. In fact, you can find Chinese flame trees in this area labeled as bougainvillea goldenrain trees.
Here’s more detail than you probably need, but worth the detail to better understand the difference. Koelreuteria bipinnata - the kind we want here - can be distinguished from Koelreuteria paniculata by the bipinnately (twice-divided) compound leaves with finely toothed leaflets, flowers with four petals, and elliptically shaped fruits. The bracts change from pink to salmon. Koelreuteria paniculata has mostly pinnately leaves, a few imperfect bipinnately compound leaves, coarsely toothed-to-lobed leaflets, five-petal flowers and conically shaped, yellow-colored fruits. Now let’s be honest … who is going to remember all that?
The original version of the goldenrain tree is considered messy and invasive, while the Chinese flame tree is not. So, as you drive around the area over the next few weeks, you may see that cooler weather has forced the seed heads of these trees to show off their unique colors. You can tell your passengers that they are goldenrain trees, but it would probably be more helpful if you referred to them as Chinese flame trees.