At the beginning of June, there were a few early signs that something spectacular was about to happen; after a week of fine weather, the laburnums exploded into life.
No other tree can really compete with them right now – even the monumentally magnificent magnolias wait a while until the golden boys have had their say and the laburnums return to being just ordinary trees.
But during those few weeks of riotous living the country has been blessed with a spectacle of graceful sprays of vivid yellow, sometimes stationary, sometimes blown by a gentle wind which makes the sweetly-scented flowers almost dance.
But then, of course, the party is over and instead of brilliant blooms we have mundane, brown seedpods – and the annual warning to children. The seeds may look like peas (laburnums belong to the same extended family, leguminosae) but they are poisonous. And so are the leaves and wood. So, this is one tree best admired from a distance.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to grow them; they can tolerate most garden soils, even a modicum of shade, but to perform at their peak they like to be in the full glare of the sun. What they really don’t like are strong winds, so a slightly sheltered site is much appreciated.
It’s unlikely you’ll come across the rare but lovely golden-leaved form, ‘Aureum’ or ‘Pendulum’ with its exquisite drooping branches – L watereri ‘Vossaii’ is the normal form to buy and grow. It produces better flowers and far fewer seeds than its cousin, the aptly-named Common Laburnum, L anagyroides, and the Scotch Laburnum, L alpinum, with its shiny green leaves.
Laburnums are natives of the mountainous areas of central Europe, but they were ‘discovered’ by the plant-hunting Victorians who quickly introduced them to this country, even planting them in avenues like cherries. Some gardens went even further, creating extended arches like the one at Bodnant in North Wales.
Times have changed, and today most laburnums are likely to be small forms for small gardens where they turn June into a riotous month of yellow, but they are worth growing for just those four weeks alone. Unforgettable.