Toona sinensis (syn. Cedrella sinensis)

This attractive deciduous tree is also known as Chinese cedar, although it is actually a member of the mahogany family (and one of the cold hardiest). A highly esteemed food plant in China, it is extensively cultivated for its new shoots and leaves. These can be boiled or used in stir fries, egg dishes and for pickling and seasoning. They have a aromatic oniony flavour and smell. The leaves also have many medicinal uses, and can be used as a tea substitute. The wood is perfumed and small twigs and branches can be burnt as incense, whilst the mature wood, which resembles mahogany, is good for furniture making, window frames and guitars as it is durable and easily worked and polished. Although this tree can grow to 20m tall, it can easily be pruned to keep it manageable in a small urban garden. It is tolerant of most soils but prefers a moist but well-drained loam. It needs a sunny spot, and is extremely frost hardy, although new shoots may get damaged in spring frosts. PB8.

See also Chinese Toon Tree ‘Flamingo’

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I came across this wonderful tree for the first time recently and was so struck by it that I just had to find out more about it. It has had its name changed recently and used to be known as Cedrela sinensis ‘Flamingo’ and it is also known as Chinese cedar or Chinese magogany.

Toona sinensis ‘Flamingo’ Garden Guide

Apparently Cedrela trees as they are most commonly known have fallen out of fashion and are rarely seen in European gardens but I really think this should change. I have just visited the Jardins-des-Martels close to Toulouse and they had 2 clumps of the trees in their borders and with the sun shining on the flamingo pink leaves they really did look spectacular.

If you are worried about having a big block of pink in your garden fear not, the pink only lasts 2-3 weeks and then fades to a creamy-yellow and then green and will fade in with all the other leaf colours. However for those few weeks it will be a focal point and talking point in your garden. The bark has a peeling habit and peels off in long strips.

As well as its early pink leaves it has dangling clusters of white flowers in summer which are fragrant – this tree gets better and better!

Toona sinensis is a suckering tree and so forms a clump of long straight branches up to 12 meters tall and has long whorls of flamingo-pink leaves at regular intervals up its trunk.

If you burn the branches these too are scented and are often burnt in temples in Asia to perfume the temples.

Toona sinensis ‘Flamingo’ Growing Guide

Toona sinensis likes well-drained soil and a sunny sheltered site. Try to avoid north-facing sites and heavy wet soil and your tree should quickly start growing and sending out suckering roots to form a clump.

It grows quite quickly but can take up to ten years to get to its full height. Once it has started clumping you can keep cutting the taller trees if you wish to keep a smaller size.

If you need to prune in order to keep a simple straight shape then prune after flowering in early summer.

Chinese mahogany is hardy down to about -20 and is generally pest free

Once you have had your tree a few years it should be forming young trees as it suckers from the roots. These can be used to start new clumps elsewhere in your garden or to treat your friends.

To really enjoy a burst of pink for a few weeks in spring why not plant with a Judas tree and/or a magnolia tree. I certainly plan to do this in my garden and be ‘pretty in pink’ during the month of April/May! Plant near to a purple wisteria and a lovely scent will add to the pleasure.

To see an established clump of these lovely trees go to the Jardins des Martels to the north of Toulouse in south west France.

Spring is in the air! But as any allotmenteer will know, the sad irony with seeing the first signs of new life burst forth is that it is usually one of the leanest months in the British veggie patch. Traditionally known as the “hungry gap”, this period describes the window where stocks of stored autumn and winter veg are running low, but the first spring crops have yet to mature. The term is used so widely to reflect the UK season of growing that you might think it was an inescapable reality of seasonal eating at our northern latitude. Yet in other temperate parts of the world that still eat a much broader range of traditional crops, such as east Asia, this period is not known as a time of leanness but a time of plenty.

As a greedy botanist fascinated with unusual edibles, what I have found most intriguing is that many of these prized Asian spring crops lead secret double lives as common ornamental plants in British gardens. Having munched my way through my fair share, both when travelling to their countries of origin and in my own back garden experiments, I would say that above all my favourite all-rounder has to be the Chinese cedar, Toona sinensis. It is lovingly referred to in Mandarin as xiang chun or “fragrant springtime”, and the young leaves of this stately tree have a deliciously warm, rich flavour and a distinctly bold onion-like aroma. In fact, for those unfamiliar with the plant, it is surprising just how “meaty” or “savoury” a leaf can taste. It’s a world away from the generic “green” or “leafy” flavour of the plethora of other veg that are almost interchangeable with kale or spinach. One of my mates, having been invited to taste the foliage, really hit the nail on the head when he came out with: “Wow! Beef-flavoured crisps!”

‘It’s surprising how meaty a leaf can taste’: the edible young leaves. Photograph: Alamy

The leaves get this flavour from a range of natural, sulphur-based compounds that they produce to protect their young growth against insect attack. Onions and garlic contain the same defence mechanism, which, as with Toona sinensis, ironically makes them super tasty to humans, too, with potential health benefits to boot. Their strangely familiar savoury flavour also means that, as with onions or garlic, they are supremely versatile in the kitchen, working well in the place of any other green veg in everything from soups and stews to sautées and stir fries.

But I have saved the best aspect to last. The species, in addition to having tasty spring shoots, is also a stunningly beautiful garden tree with peeling bark, rich green leaves and fragrant flowers that the bees just love. It grows extremely rapidly to form a stately tree in a huge range of soils. Pick a variety like “Flamingo” and you will get a truly show-stopping display of powder-pink new growth that can easily upstage any flowering cherry, but with a far longer display. Want to contain its size? No problem. They are very amenable to pruning. Or should that be “harvesting”?

Email James at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Botanygeek

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