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What is Laburnum?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 29 October 2016
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Laburnum is a genus with of two species of flowering tree in the pea family. Also called golden chain, plants in this genus feature abundant bright yellow flowers, and are popular garden plants as a result. They are also poisonous and potentially fatal if ingested, however, so children and pets should be supervised around the plant.

In addition to its beauty, golden chain is grown for its wood, which can be used for posts and fuel. It was also historically used to make bows. Native to the mountains of southern Europe, these trees are also called false ebony, as the timber of old trees can be used to simulate that of ebony. The heartwood of the tree is a rich yellow, while the sapwood is dark and very hard.

L. anagyroides, or common laburnum, can grow to 23 feet (7 meters) in height. The fragrant yellow flowers bloom in late spring, often in May. L. anagyroides has a smooth bark, and dark green leaves and branches. It prefers damp climates and mild temperatures.

L. alpinum, also called Alpine or Scottish laburnum, has longer flower stalks than L. anagyroides, but does not flower as densely. Most laburnums grown in the garden are a hybrid between L. alpinum and L. anagyroides, called Voss's laburnum, that combines the properties of both species. The hybrid also produces less seeds than either natural species.

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All parts of laburnum are poisonous, causing symptoms such as convulsions, fatigue, vomiting or diarrhea, and even coma and death. The plant contains the poisonous alkaline cytisine. Many cultural references to the plant are a reference to its toxicity. For example, it is often mentioned in literature as a symbol of danger or death.

An Indian legend tells that the laburnum was once a non-flowering tree. The god Krishna appeared on earth in the form of a young boy, and gave his golden anklet to another boy whom he befriended. When the golden anklet on the statute of Krishna in the temple was found to be missing, the priests accused the boy of stealing it.

Though the boy claimed that the anklet had been a gift, no one believed him, since no one else had seen Krishna in his human form. The boy threw the anklet at a laburnum tree, which immediately burst into flower. The tree is now considered sacred to Krishna, and the common name golden chain references the flowers' resemblance to a golden anklet.

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