A Gardening Journal

Pink-leaved Chinese Mahogany

New foliage in Spring can be almost any color—ebony, burgundy, red, orange, yellow, violet, blue, or white—but pink is probably the rarest. In the continuing coolness of Spring, the young leaves of 'Flamingo' mahogany seem to stay brighter than ever.

 

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Although Toona sinensis 'Flamingo' can be encouraged to mature to a single-trunked tree, it prefers to sucker, forming colonies of dense vertical stems. My young plant has already formed a couple of dozen such stems.

 

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Although established trees in favored circumstances (see "Culture," below) can spread so enthusiastically they need underground barriers or root pruning to stay in bounds, the profusion of stems is good: There are that many more terminal tufts of extraordinary pink foliage.

 

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Warmer days will enable the foliage to expand, but if the weather slides too quickly into Summer heat, the pink will probably fade to green just as fast. Ah, for weeks of mild but still cool weather. Toona sinensis 'Flamingo' is a quirky tree, indeed—and, incredibly, sprouting Spring foliage that's fluorescent pink isn't its strangest talent. Neither is its status as the hardiest-by-far member of the Mahogany family, whose members are mostly tropical.

 

Instead, new leaves and shoots of Toona can be harvested, to be cooked and served as a leafy vegetable. A pink-leaved mahogany that can be stir-fried: Who knew? 

 

Here's how to grow this unique hardy tree:

 

Latin Name

Toona sinensis 'Flamingo'; formerly Cedrela sinensis 'Flamingo'

Common Name

Pink-leaved Chinese mahogany

Family

Meliaceae, the Mahogany family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous suckering tree. 

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 11.

Habit

Unless controlled, multi-stemmed and spreading, with upright stems. Unless you see 'Flamingo' in its Spring pink foliage, the tree could be mistaken for sumac.  

Rate of Growth

Fast in youth or in response to pruning; slower in maturity.

Size

If it has room and time, and is not pruned regularly, Toona sinensis can mature to a medium-sized shade tree thirty to forty feet tall. It can grow to sixty or seventy feet in the wild. One of the largest Toona sinensis in cultivation is at Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia. It is 90 feet tall, and as wide-spreading as an oak.

 

'Flamingo' is much smaller, to about 24 feet high and 12 wide, and seems to remain upright instead of spreading.

Texture

Even when pruned to maximize the number of stems and, hence, the amount of foliage, 'Flamingo' still has an open and "artistic" presence when "in the pink," because the emerging leaves are still comparatively small, and the tufts of them are widely spaced up the many vertical stems. Mature leaves are much larger, transforming the delicate filigree of the Spring show to a nearly solid block of green Summer foliage.

Grown for

its colorful foliage, which, in Spring, is among the most striking of any hardy plant, from perennial to tree. The pinnate leaves mature to the size and coloring of those of sumac, but when they emerge in Spring they are intensely not green, varying in color from raspberry to pale pink to yellow-pink to near white. It's not unusual for coloring to start out pink, then fade to yellow-green with highlights of parchment-white, then deepen to green for the Summer. Fall foliage is a pleasing yellow.

 

Depending on the circumstances, the colorful Spring display can last for a month or two. I'm not aware of sources that detail the factors that might influence the endurance and depth of coloring. Likely contributors (and their possible consequences) include: extended Spring coolness (which would be expected to deepen as well as prolong the pink coloring); severity of the Winter (Is coloring more intense after colder Winters?); dryness of climate (Is coloring more intense if the tree experiences dry soil or is actually drought-stressed?); leaner soil (Is coloring more intense with slower overall growth?); heightened drainage (Hardiness and vigor is greatly increased with excellent drainage. Does coloring improve or degrade when trees are growing at their maximum rate?); mildness of the climate (Is coloring different when there is less variance between Winter and Summer temperatures?); overall hotness or coolness of a mild climate (Although 'Flamingo' tolerates high heat and strong sun, colors are probably more intense as well as longer-lasting in a mild but cool climate.); frequency and intensity of pruning (resultant foliage is often enhanced in size or coloring or both—but what about for Toona?).

 

Further, it's likely that the straight species of Toona sinensis has some tendency to early-season "pinking," too. Few sources comment about the Spring foliage of the species, although one Australian source reports that the species' leaves emerge pinkish-bronze. (See the confusing claims in "Variants," below.)

 

Toona sinensis is still rare in Western horticulture, let alone its 'Flamingo' cultivar. In Asia, the species is grown as a greens-and-shoots vegetable (see "Quirks," below) and, so, its numbers as a food crop are probably many orders of magnitude greater than those trees grown just as ornamentals. Clarifying this tree's singular foliar behavior probably requires observation of many specimens growing in many different conditions as both ornamentals and workaday food crops.

 

its rarity: Toona sinensis is one of the rare members of the Mahogany family that thrives in climates colder than Zone 7. (Another Mahogany-family species, Melia azedarach, is itself unusual for being hardy even to Zone 7. Overwhelmingly, Meliaceae members are subtropical and tropical.) To my knowledge, Toona is also the only hardy tree that is grown more often as a leafy vegetable than as an ornamental. Yes, many other trees provide edible crops, but via fruit and seeds. And, while "hearts" can be harvested from a number of different palms, the dish is too costly to be part of a quotidien diet. In contrast, Toona sinensis can be cultivated for the routine harvesting of its youngest shoots and leaves. One source described orchards in China with rows of fruit trees alternated with rows of Toona that was harvested so frequently and often—in essence, pinched and pruned all season long—that the trees grew as dense shrubs.

 

Lastly, Spring foliage in hues of blue, burgundy, orange, red, yellow, white, and even violet is fairly common among plants hardy to Zone 6 and colder. (As just an introduction, see the forms of catalpa, spiraea, hosta, aralia, clematis, maple, and peony currently listed here in "Geek.") Foliage that is pink in Spring, however, is rare: Acer negundo 'Flamingo', Acer palmatum 'Butterfly', Aesculus x neglecta 'Erythroblastus'Clethra barbinervsis 'Takeda Nishiki'Quercus dentata 'Pinnatifida', and Sorbaria sorbifolia 'Sem' are the majority of the list.

 

Without question, then, Toona sinensis 'Flamingo' is the only hardy, pink-leaved mahogany that can be stir-fried.

Flowering season

Panicles of small whitish flowers emerge in early Summer. They are interesting more than showy, and are reported to mature to flower-like dried seedheads that are useful in Winter arrangements. That said, Toona is reported as self-seeding prolifically, so it might be advisable to grow the tree to minimize flowering, and to deadheading should that fail. Sources don't comment outright about the flowering or seeding capability of 'Flamingo', so self-seeding might not be a problem. Should control be necessary, see suggestions in the second "How to handle it" box, below.

Color combinations 

Avoid other plants nearby that also provide a Spring dose of pink: It's likely that one or other of the shades will seem either weak or strident. Worse, either 'Flamingo' or one of its other so-called "pink" neighbors won't read as pink at all in comparison to the other but, rather, salmon or flesh, cherry or rosy, or bluish.

 

Instead, welcome nearby darker colors such as burgundy or deep green. Then, if your nerve holds, pull out all stops by adding an explosive variety of orange, yellow, or magenta. See "Plant partners" for possibilities.

Plant partners

Because 'Flamingo' has such a broad hardiness range—from the long and frigid Zone 5 Winters and brief but warm Summers of, say, western Massachusetts to the year-round equatorial swelter of Indonesia—its range of inspired plant partners is far larger than can be detailed here.

 

Regardless of climate, the tree's best performance occurs when it enjoys full sun and good-to-excellent drainage, so its plant partners will need to enjoy the same. Further, because the new foliage is exciting from the get-go (as in my pictures above), when other deciduous species might still be dormant, it's important to ensure that evergreens predominate, with deciduous species included only if they also provide a worthy early-season display.

 

The simplest handling of this seasonally-spectacular diva is to surround it with deferential dark-hued evergreens, high at the back and low at the front. Coniferous, broadleaved, or grassy forms will all work: The pinnate foliage of 'Flamingo' contrasts well with each. Next, consider some burgundy or ebony, which will complement the tree's foliage no matter which of its pink, salmon, green, or yellow phases are current. Then, enjoy a jolt of intentional bad taste, by introducing a color or two whose hue is as saturated as it is jarring. I vote for mango or magenta.

 

These partner plants could fulfill this fantasy in Zone 5 to 7: Dark evergreen background: yew or holly, preferably clipped into a hedge. Evergreen foreground: Wilson rhododendrons or sarcococca; in Zone 7, skimmia, ruscus, or danae. Accent of burgundy: This is the tough one for such comparatively cold climates, because there aren't evergreen choices that are burgundy year-round. If you grow a purple-leaved phormium in a container, it's hardy enough to set out when Spring weather is still chilly but frost danger has lessened. Would the foliage of a PJM rhododendron retain its burgundy Winter coloring long enough into Spring to coincide with the emerging foliage of 'Flamingo'? Probably not—but the uninhibited bright lavenders and pinks of the PJM flowers probably would. For that jolt of mango or magenta, what about azaleas? Although both rhodies and azaleas demand moisture-retentive soil, they hate poor drainage as much as 'Flamingo'. When possible, site them all on the east or north sides of 'Flamingo', which can bring them some welcome dappled shade.

Where to use it in your garden

The startling pink of the early-season foliage of 'Flamingo' combines with this cultivar's rarity in Western horticulture to make the tree an automatic star of your Spring garden. Give 'Flamingo' the respect its singular performance deserves or, at the least, be mindful that it will hog center stage regardless. So, site 'Flamingo' where its flagrant and eccentric Spring brilliance will be a welcome highlight, not an eyesore.

 

As long as its soil is well-drained, Toona sinensis tolerates high or low soil pH as well as high salt content. Established trees tolerate considerable periods of drought, too. These characteristics combine to suggest Toona as a candidate for street trees, and thriving plantings of the straight species are known in Philadelphia and Paris. A streetside row of 'Flamingo' would stop traffic, perhaps dangerously so.

 

Where 'Flamingo' enjoys excellent drainage, the tree's stoloniferousness may become too much of a good thing unless controlled. Why not plan from the start for such eager growth, and site 'Flamingo' in planting pockets surrounded by paving? The vertical growth habit suggests that a grove of 'Flamingo' could be established in any such firmly-bounded area, to create a vivid block of foliage each Spring. If the planting area is long and narrow, 'Flamingo' could form a natural screen of growth. Or plant in individual planting pockets in a larger expanse of paving, to create a walk-through experience of pink foliage. In Zone 7 and milder, the species' appreciation of good drainage combines with its heat tolerance to suggest planting in large containers that are in place year-round. 

 

Where you use it, the Spring foliage peak of 'Flamingo' is so strong and so unusual that its performance the rest of the year is bland in comparison. This tree commands your most prominent spot in Spring—but, through no fault of its own, isn't the obvious choice for center stage in Summer, Fall, and Winter. My garden's deep heavy soil and flat and, sometimes, poorly-draining terrain would make direct establishment of 'Flamingo' unlikely: Toona demands excellent drainage. No problem: The tree should be center-stage just when its pink foliage is at its peak, and then be moved to a less prominent spot to complete its seasonal growth cycle. In short, I'm keeping 'Flamingo' in a container—but one that's not so enormous that I can't reposition it seasonally. A twenty-five-gallon nursery pot is my upper limit of portability, but your site's logistics may permit a container that's even larger. I move my 'Flamingo' into focal primacy in Spring, then to a more background location for Summer and Fall, then into the basement for its leafless Winter dormancy.

Culture

Site in full sun, planting in almost any soil—acid or sweet, salty or salt-free, lean or nutrient-rich—that is well-drained. In Zone 6 and 5, Spring planting is probably best; in Zone 7 and warmer, planting in Fall is also possible.

How to handle it:

The basics

Because pictures of mature individuals of 'Flamingo' show a relatively narrow column of growth composed of many vertical stems, we can assume that this is the natural habit of this cultivar. (Not every 'Flamingo' that's photo-ready will have received the regular and thoughtful pruning introduced in the "Another option—or two!" box, below.) Shoots from the base of the main stem as well as the surrounding roots will arise naturally—and you should let them: The more stems, the more branch tips to bear the tufts of startling pink foliage. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

If you want, help your 'Flamingo' become even more densely stemmy by pruning some of the oldest and thickest branches down their bases. Do this in early Spring, so that side stems on those stubs, as well as additional basal shoots, are encouraged. This pruning also helps control overall size—although, because no 'Flamingo' that I'm aware of is larger than, say, a really tall lilac, size control isn't usually a problem.

 

You may need to control the spread of your 'Flamingo' colony, especially in milder climates and at sites with the nutrient-rich but well-drained soil that will encourage the most vigorous growth. If you're not able to site the tree in a planting pocket that's bounded by paving or walls, you'll need to control outward growth yourself. In late Winter or early Spring, chop around the perimeter of the colony with your shovel, to sever out-of-bounds roots and their sprouts so you can either lift and compost them, or pot them up to give to friends that are still, poor things, 'Flamingo'-free.

 

Don't hesitate to thin your 'Flamingo' colony to give individual stems and their foliage more room or, simply, to enhance the airy and see-through excitement of vertical stems tufted only occasionally by raucous pink leaves. Or, adopt the reverse priority by pruning all stems down to stubs in early Spring. Vigorous trees produce new stems in response to pruning. They will grow quickly, and will also be more equal in height than growth that is pruned only sporadically. These new shoots will bear green foliage as they grow that Summer but, the following Spring, their new foliage will be pink, and the display will be the densest ever. I'm not aware of reports that detail specifically whether or not such pruning affects the size or color of the Spring foliage. 

 

If you find that 'Flamingo' flowers and sets viable seed, any of these methods of pruning will control overall size and, so, make deadheading easier. Further, stems that are cut back in late Winter or early Spring won't flower that first season—and neither will any of their resultant shoots. If your tree is vigorous (thanks, mostly, to excellent drainage and plenty of sun), you may want to implement pruning anyway, just to enhance the foliage display and control size. Control of flowering and seeding might be an inadvertent but welcome bonus.

Quirks and special cases 

It's rare, indeed, to be able to grow a tree as a leafy vegetable. For fruit or nuts or flowers, yes. But for greens? Toona is a unique food crop. Young growth is edible, stems as well as foliage. The taste is reported to be mildly oniony. That first flush of Spring foliage would, therefore, seem to be as eagerly awaited as ramps or asparagus. Does the pink foliage of 'Flamingo' retain its coloring when cooked?  

 

Harvesting tender shoots from Toona sinensis is, in essence, a form of pinching and pruning. If this harvesting is done when the tree is still low enough that its tallest stems are reachable, the highest tips are naturally chosen first. Their removal not only stimulates production of side shoots, and so ensures further harvests; it also keeps the tree low enough—the scale of a shrub—that such harvesting is all the easier. It will also prevent the tree from flowering and, so, eliminates the worry of self-seeding.

 

Tender growth can be harvested from Toona that has grown large enough to function as a tree, but such harvesting is necessarily from below, taking only the bottom growth that is still reachable. And, so, it has the opposite effect, of enhancing the primacy of the top growth that's still so high it's out of reach. Such safe-from-harvesting tips—which, remember, will have the fullest exposure to full sun—will only continue to lengthen, taunting foragers to climb ever higher. Such trees acquire a striking elongated shape, with tall stems bare of foliage except for terminal tufts. 

Downsides

Toona sinensis and 'Flamingo' both sucker. The straight species is also reported as self-seeding prolifically. I'm not aware of a source that comments on the ability of 'Flamingo' to set viable seed, and my specimen isn't yet old enough to flower. You might be able to plant 'Flamingo' and worry only about controlling its suckering, not its seeding.  

 

Either way, establishing either 'Flamingo' or Toona sinensis itself means a commitment to control measures. See the second "How to handle it" and "Quirks" boxes, above, for tactics that enable you to grow 'Flamingo' with confidence as well as style.  

Variants

I'm not aware of any named cultivars of Toona sinensis other than 'Flamingo'. Even so, there is surprising confusion. Some otherwise-reputable sources mention the pink foliage of the species itself, while most others ascribe that talent just to 'Flamingo'. Sources focused on indigenous food rather than ornamental horticulture list Red Chinese Toon, a form with purple young foliage and spreading limbs; and Green Chinese Toon, with upright limbs and foliage that lacks unusual Spring coloring—but I'm unable to locate a nursery or even a cultivar reference that includes either.

 

With its striking Spring foliage and upright limbs, 'Flamingo' would seem to be a hybrid of the red and green forms, but I'm not aware of any confirmation of its precise heritage beyond "originated in Australia in 1930." Further, one reference says that 'Flamingo' is propagated by grafting, but others mention its quickness to proliferate by suckers and, hence, its ease of propagation from divisions of the clump. My own young specimen was purchased as 'Flamingo'; its profuse suckering— with pink foliage produced at the tips of the suckers, too, not just from the original stem—suggests that grafting is unnecessary.

Availability

Online.

Propagation

By hardwood cuttings and by severing suckers that have produced root shoots. Cut between the sucker and the heart of the colony, so that there are roots that remain attached. Dig out this released portion from the Toona colony and transplant. Do this in early Spring.

Native habitat

Toona sinensis is native to eastern and southeastern Asia, from Korea to Indonesia to Nepal. 'Flamingo' originated in Australia  around 1930.

 
 
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