Garden Detective

Garden Detective: Mystery tree brings up shady possibilities

I was wondering if you could help me identify this tree. I took these photos in Washington D.C. at the end of April. The area was in the park right by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. The trees seem to be a good shade tree and give off a sweet scent. Could you include some info as to whether or not they would grow well in Sacramento, including growth rate and availability? I am looking for a medium-size shade tree for my backyard and am wondering if this would be an option. Please share any ideas you might have as to other trees with a fairly fast growth rate.

Matt Toland, Sacramento

According to UC master gardeners Veronica Simpson, your mystery tree tree resembles a Golden Chain tree ( Laburnum), a member of the Fabaceae (Leguminosae) or pea family .

The Golden Chain has yellow flowers similar to your picture of a white-flowered tree.

Golden Chain can be grown as a shrub or pruned into single tree. Sunset Garden Book lists growing zones 1 through 10. It needs shade in hot areas, well-drained soil and moderate water. The seed pods are toxic and zap the plant of strength.

Of course, Golden Chain trees have yellow flowers, not white like your mystery tree. The flowers also resemble another member of the pea family, the honey locust ( Gleditsia triacanthos). With its graceful foliage and sweet-scented white flowers, honey locust is a popular urban street tree throughout the Southeast including, Washington D.C. It’s hardy in zones 4 through 9 and can reach 70 feet tall. Fast growing, it will grow 2 feet or more per year for its first decade. On the down side, this tree does not perform well in high heat (such as triple-digit summer weather) or heavy clay soils. Also, many varieties of these trees have formidable thorns.

As alternatives for Sacramento, consider these popular choices. Eastern redbud, Chinese pistache, Chinese flame and Washington hawthorn are lovely trees that grow well in the Sacramento area and can take the heat.

For a complete list of shade trees suitable for Sacramento, go to . This website provides information on size, rate of growth, location information, and pros and cons for the extensive list of trees. The Sacramento Tree Foundation also has a program in conjunction with SMUD to provide free shade trees. Information on the program is on the website.

Another source of trees that grow well in our area is the list of UC Davis Arboretum All-Stars, available at