#56 Laburnum



          Laburnum anagyroides is a species of small (15 to 25 ft.), deciduous tree related to the pea-flower family Fabaceae, native to central and southern Europe. Also known as the Golden Chain Tree, it is grown primarily for its ornamental flowers which bloom in spring at the same time as lilac and wisteria, taking the form of “long drooping racemes of yellow pea-flowers” similar except for color to wisteria (Hogan 786).  All parts of laburnum are highly toxic, containing alkaloid cytosine which can be absorbed thorough the skin. In his book on Lilac and Laburnum, Bartrum states that laburnum is “next to the Yew.  .  . the most poisonous tree grown in Britain” and warns against allowing horses to eat the seed pods (124). Watts maintains that they are so poisonous that “merely carrying twigs induces symptoms” and advises that planting laburnum hanging above a fishpond will kill the inhabitants (220). He also notes that in folklore it was said that “lilac and laburnum mourn if any of the same kind of tree is cut down near them, and it was believed that they would not bloom the flowing year” (220). Perhaps because of its dangerous quality or its drooping habit it or its legendary bonding, laburnum was identified in the Victorian language of flowers with “Forsaken. Pensive beauty” (Greenaway 26).

Laburnums function almost exclusively as ornamental landscape features in Woolf, their eleven appearances usually linked to intense sensations of light and color. While her first mention of the flowering tree during a June 1919 inspection of the Round House poised above Lewes merely comments on “how Lewes looked tempting with laburnums and water meadows” spread out below (D1 279), some of the tree’s more enchanting features are suggested in her 1924 essay “Thunder at Wembley,” where the brilliant light of the arc lamps intensifies its color: “if a laburnum tree shook her tassels, spangles of limelight floated in the violet and crimson air” (E3 411).

This linking of the gold of laburnum with violet and/or crimson becomes something of a leitmotif in Woolf’s perceptions.  Perhaps because laburnum and lilac bloom at the same time, perhaps because of the visual placement of purple and yellow as contrasting colors on the painter’s wheel, the two ornamental trees are often linked.[1] In the fifth Interlude of The Waves, at midday just before the announcement of Percival’s death when the garden is “all blossom and profusion,” the “gilt and purpled” birds collect “little bits of straw and twigs” into the higher branches of the trees in order to build nests, perching where “cones of laburnum and purple shook down gold and lilac” (TW 108).  The regal pairing of gold and purple is an ironic prelude to the mourning which immediately follows, though it is impossible to tell if the gathering of poisonous twigs is meant to foreshadow the breaking of the bonds between friends. Interestingly, in October 1931, the same month that The Waves was published, Leonard Woolf ordered both laburnum and lilac (as well as mulberry) for the garden at Monk’s House (LWGA).  They quickly grew to be a feature in the garden; in May of 1934, Woolf writes Elizabeth Bowen from Monk’s House informing her of her recovery from a bout of influenza: “And it doesn’t much matter as one can sit under the laburnums and watch a white horse munching in the marsh”(L5 304).

Laburnum and Copper Beach in Gordon Square, 2000

In June of 1932 Woolf notes an example of laburnum’s colorful effect on an evening walk in Hyde Park: “The mauve grey green trees, flushed with livid pinks & yellows; the may & and the laburnum scarcely burning, like colour under water that cloudy, rainy thunder yellow evening”(D4 108). Two years later the effect was again conjured in Flush, where the spaniel’s independence and freedom in Italy is set amongst the blooming flowers of spring when “the wistarias and the laburnum were flowering over walls” (118).  On a May 1935 visit to Holland Woolf pairs yellow laburnum with red tulips in a letter to Ethel Smyth: “figure to yourself Shakespeare’s England still lived in, with Canals and whole banks of red tulips, yellow laburnum, showering down” (L4 391).

            Laburnum's two appearances in The Years (1937) are particularly fraught with possible meaning. The first time, the laburnum on the corner of Abercorn Terrace is a kind of beacon shining over Rose Pargiter as she embarks on her illicit adventure to run alone at twilight to Lamley’s shop to buy a coveted box of ducks (26). Her heroic mission is waylaid, however, by the appearance of a “pock-marked man” who, on her return journey, exposes himself to her, poisoning her attempt at autonomy with sexual trauma (TY 28). Several critics have linked Rose’s experience with the incestuous advances of Woolf’s half bothers, [2] and the connection of the laburnum with that sexual trauma may be suggested by her later memory of walking in Kensington Gardens after her mother’s death in “A Sketch of the Past”: “I see us walking -- I rather proud of the solemn blackness and the impression it must make -- into Kensington Gardens; and how golden the laburnum shone,” a moment marked by “stifling” silence as the children struggled with an inability to respond to their father’s gloom (MOB 94). A contrasting context for laburnum is, however, later suggested by the tree’s presence in Oxford as a kind of ghostly glow partly obscured by the rain.  A possible manifestation occurs at the beginning of the Oxford section of the 1880 chapter where Edward Pargiter leans out of his window at twilight and sees “a pale yellowish mound in one corner where lamplight fell upon a flowering tree” (46).  A few pages later, the rain continues to fall “over flowering bushes of lilac and labarnum” (59) as Kitty Malone sets out for her weekly tutorial with Miss Lacy Craddock (61).[3]

            Woolf’s last diary reference to laburnum in May of 1938, evokes the spectacle of partially damaged glory. Driving down to Monk’s House from London, Woolf reports: “laburnum all chipped by the bitter spring: but pink on the may, & various fine shades of gold red & bluebell blue on the trees all the same,” a compilation of color effects (D5 139).

I think I took this in Richmond 2015

[1] In his 1959 book on Lilac and Laburnum, Douglas Bartrum asserts that “Laburnum is often mentioned -- in the same breath, one might almost say-- with Lilac,” tracing the pairing in English gardens back many hundreds of years (122; 10).
[2] See Patricia M. Cramer’s essay on “Trauma and Lesbian Return in Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out and The Years” for a helpful discussion of the link between Rose’s sexual trauma and that of the young Virginia Stephen, especially pp 36-40.

[3] See Cramer’s discussion of Kitty’s development as a direct contrast to that of Rose, pp.45-7.

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...