A genus of some 30,000 diverse plants hail from China, but the Chinese are choosy when planting them in their gardens. Symbolic meanings play a significant role in the selection process. Many ornamental trees grown in the United States are indigenous to China, including Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba), Yulan magnolia (Magnolia heptapeta) and China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata).
A member of the Cercidiphyllaceae family, the deciduous Katsura tree grows to a height of 70 feet and a width of 50 feet, spreading from a pyramidal to rounded shape. Insignificant flowers appear in spring. A Katsura tree's crowning glory occurs in autumn, when its 4-inch-long leaves burst into vibrant hues of crimson, yellow and orange, making this an outstanding specimen or street tree. The fallen leaves emit a burnt sugar aroma. Katsura trees prefer sites exposed to full sun or partial shade with protection from chilly winds. They grow best in moist, well drained, neutral to acidic rich soil in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 to 8. Katsura trees are propagated by seed in containers in an open frame as soon as the seeds are ripe. Propagation is also accomplished by using basal cuttings taken in late spring and partially ripe cuttings taken during midsummer.
In spring, the dioecious Maidenhair tree sports clusters of 3-inch-long yellow, dangling, cylindrical male flowers and single, round female blossoms. In fall, the female blossoms bear 1¼-inch yellowish-green, fleshy fruit with a large, edible nut inside. This deciduous member of the Ginkgoaceae family reaches up to 100 feet tall and 25 feet wide that forms a columnar shape, creating an eye-catching landscape or specimen tree. Maidenhair trees grow best in full sun and rich, well-drained soil in USDA zones 5 to 9. Propagation is by ripened seed sown in containers in an open frame or by semi-ripe cuttings taken in summer.
The Yulan magnolia tree boasts stunning blossoms that release a heady fragrance in spring. Gigantic, creamy white flowers grow to 6 inches across and reveal a pinkish tint inside. Leathery, 7-inch-long leaves are followed by large, brown cones in autumn, which grow to 5 inches long. The deciduous Yulan belongs to the Magnoliaceae family and reaches a height of 40 feet with a broad, rounded crown. This fast-growing, ornamental magnolia blooms when young and excels as a landscape tree, a specimen in an open stretch of lawn or when planted along a woodland border. It adapts to most soils and loves the bright sunshine, but grows well in partial shade in USDA zones 6 to 9. For propagation, seeds are collected from the cones in the fall and planted immediately.
The coniferous China fir tree comes from the Taxodiaceae family. Nondescript flowers and small cones in clusters of three or more appear on this evergreen. Attention is drawn to the flat, sharply pointed, vivid green to bluish-green needles that spiral upward into an impressive arch around the stem of the tree. A China fir can reach to 75 feet tall and 30 feet wide. It prefers sunny or partially shaded locations protected from the wind and moist, acidic, well-drained soil in USDA zones 7 to 9. With its exotic appearance, this fir tree does well alone as a specimen or in groups as an attractive background for blossoming trees. Propagation is by seed or from cuttings taken during fall. Lateral branch cuttings create wide firs with a rounded crown, while vertical shoot cuttings produce narrow, cone-shaped trees. Dead needles falling from China firs accumulate and are highly flammable. Therefore, these trees are not recommended for locations susceptible to wildfires.