Golden Chain Tree Plant Profile

Pros and Cons of Laburnum

Golden chain tree with pond and rhododendrons in background.

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Fussier than many plants about climate, golden chain tree is a Goldilocks of the plant world — and not just in appearance. This member of the pea family grows best in a narrow range of USDA planting zones. Just like Goldilocks in the fairy tale, it does not like it too cold, but it does not like it too hot, either. It requires a climate that is "just right," especially if you demand an optimal floral display. Nor is this the only drawback to the plant. Golden chain tree is relatively rare due to its fussiness and to various other problems to which it is susceptible. Still, its beauty makes it well worth trying if you have a climate conducive to growing it.

Botanical Name Laburnum × watereri
Common Name Golden chain tree, bean tree, Waterer laburnum
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Mature Size 15 to 25 feet in height; spread can be similar but is often less
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial sun
Soil Type Well-drained, rich, with medium moisture
Soil pH Neutral to alkaline
Bloom Time Late spring
Flower Color Golden
Hardiness Zones 5 to 7
Native Area Southern Europe

How to Grow Golden Chain Tree

Blight, canker, and leaf spot are potential diseases to keep an eye out for with Laburnum × watereri. Spray for aphids and mealybugs as needed.

Laburnums are susceptible to sunscald and their branches may suffer some damage during challenging winters. Consequently, they benefit from being grown in a sheltered location. They often thrive when planted in a cozy nook next to a patio, say, for example.

Young specimens require staking, as the trunks are quite floppy. The young branches are also weak. It is a good idea to prune off some of the more awkwardly situated ones after the blooming season as a preventive measure against winter damage.

Light

Plant golden chain tree in full sun at the northern end of its range and in partial sun at the southern end of its range.

Soil

Grow it in a well-drained soil.

Water

The plant has average water needs.

Fertilizer

Fertilize annually in spring with compost.

Characteristics of Golden Chain Tree

Whereas we're used to seeing trees with a gray or brown bark, young specimens bear a smooth, green-colored bark. On older specimens of Laburnum × watereri, the bark is often darker and deeply fissured. Leaves are made up of three leaflets and look like pointy clover leaves. But laburnums don't exhibit dense foliage, and it can be hard to predict their branching patterns. All of which is of little consequence since they are grown for only one reason: the gold racemes these flowering trees produce in May or June that give them their name.

Varieties of Golden Chain Tree

Laburnum × watereri is a hybrid plant. It is a cross between two species of Laburnum, both native to Southern Europe: Laburnum anagyroides and Laburnum alpinum. A well-known cultivar is Voss's golden chain tree (Laburnum × watereri 'Vossii').

Pros and Cons of Golden Chain Tree

Golden chain tree is a poisonous plant, so it is not a livestock-friendly, pet-friendly, or child-friendly plant choice. All parts of the plant are toxic, including the seed pods. But that does not stop snails from eating the leaves. Even without snail infestations, the foliage is not especially handsome, and this specimen holds little visual interest outside of its short blooming period.

In moderately cool weather, blooms may last 2 to 3 weeks. In warm weather (especially in a full-sun location), the blooms last less than that, and, even if they don't drop off, their bright golden color will fade to yellow.

If heat does not get the blossoms, then the cold might. The floral display is often ruined by a late frost in spring.

But its short blooming period hardly constitutes a sufficient argument against growing Laburnum × watereri. You can derive as much joy from a plant that's a 10 (on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest rating) for a week or two as you could from another that's only a 5, albeit for a longer period.

Furthermore, offsetting all the cons against golden chain tree is the stunning beauty of the racemes of golden-yellow flowers with which it drips in late spring. The racemes have a strong fragrance; compelling rather than sweet, it is an acquired taste. But everyone immediately falls in love with their bright, cheerful appearance. The golden racemes of Laburnum × watereri may be 10 to 20 inches in length.

Uses for Golden Chain Trees

Terrific specimen plants when blooming in late spring, there are two reasons to grow golden chain trees near a patio, in a protected area:

  • You will be better able to enjoy them there.
  • The shelter will help shield them from the ravages of winter.

Cool Summers Perfect for Golden Chain Trees

One of the few locations in the United States where golden chain tree grows abundantly is Bar Harbor, Maine. This is no coincidence, since Bar Harbor, which sticks out into the North Atlantic, is an area known for its cool summers.

A famous landscape architect seems to have understood that the climate in Bar Harbor would be perfect for golden chain trees. Beatrix Farrand (1872 to 1959) was a landscape architect influenced by Gertrude Jekyll, among others. Farrand ended her days in the Bar Harbor area, where she left a considerable horticultural impression. The word from the locals is that it was Farrand who introduced Laburnum × watereri to those parts. Many residences and businesses in Bar Harbor and its environs still sport golden chain trees as specimen plants. These beauties are also commonly seen growing wild along a few stretches of road in the area.

Golden Chain vs. Golden Rain

In the past, some have called Laburnum × watereri "golden rain" tree. But that common name belongs, properly, to another plant: Koelreuteria paniculata. At present, if you hear someone say "golden rain" when they really mean "golden chain," they are most likely novices confused by the fact that the two common names have a similar ring to them (it also doesn't help that both plants have yellow flowers). But the two are entirely distinct: Koelreuteria paniculata is native to the Far East, not southern Europe. This is just another example of why we should use the scientific names of plants to avoid the confusion caused by common plant names.