Money Tree = Jade Plant
You might think the idea of a money tree started in ancient times yet all evidence points to it being a rather recent concept. Some say that the money tree is a jade plant (Crassula argentea) and that its origin is in China. I guess since it’s called jade, which describes the color of its leaves, it has been associated with China yet there is a problem here since jade plant, like most species in its family (Crassulaceae) of succulents, is native to South Africa. The fact that the species name argentea comes from the Latin word silver, with its leaves circular enough to resemble silver coins, must also have something to do with calling jade plant a money tree.
Money Tree = Malabar Chestnut
The money tree promoted in the gift and holiday plant business is Malabar chestnut (Pachira spp). It’s name is problematic since Malabar is a coastal area in southwest India whereas the eponymous chestnut is native to swampy habitats from northern Brazil to southern Mexico.
You can grow this tree outdoors in Southern California in protected locations since it is hardy down to 28 degrees. Flowers are fragrant and the large football shaped fruits contain as many as eight chestnut sized seeds that may be eaten raw or roasted.
Note: A response to the above from Douglas Stringham pointed out that Malabar chestnuts may be toxic. Upon reviewing literature on the subject, I learned that the nuts of Pachira aquatica, the species most commonly grown, has white flowers and edible nuts whereas Pachira insignis, with red flowers, produces toxic nuts.
Jade plant comes from a dry climate, while Malabar chestnut comes from a wet one, yet these two environmentally diverse species have something in common: indestructibility. Jade plant is designed for the frequent traveler who does not want to worry about regular watering of potted plants. You can miss watering a mature jade plant for days, or even weeks, without endangering its life.
Malabar chestnut, on the other hand, which requires soil that is almost always wet, is made for stay-at-homes who long for indoor greenery but, alas, love their plants so much that an over abundance of water is applied, leading to the untimely demise of one botanical treasure after the next. Yet, by some accounts, it is impossible to water Malabar chestnut too much, and so the over zealous irrigator has nothing to fear when caring for this beauty.
Indoor Plants with Woody Trunks include Malabar Chestnut
Aside from a few ficus trees such as weeping fig (Ficus benjamina), fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata), and rubber tree (Ficus elastica), there are few, if any, trees with woody trunks that can be grown indoors, but Malabar chestnut is one of them. To provide an exotic flair, Malabar chestnut is typically grown with four seedlings in a single pot. When the seedlings are young, their flexible trunks are woven together. By the time the plant is a few years old, there is a solid braid of woody trunk supporting a distinctive canopy of compound, five-leaflet leaves.
Jade plant and Malabar chestnut earned the title of money tree on account of their constancy. The idea behind a money tree is that having one around will make you wealthy since looking at its evergreen vibrancy will rub off on you, leading to boundless energy, a prerequisite for limitless prosperity.
Since the 1980‘s, Malabar chestnut has truly become a money tree. Several millionaires made their fortune by exporting these trees with the braided trunks. Today, you can find Malabar chestnuts decorating interior spaces around the globe.
Incidentally, the expression “money doesn’t grow on trees” was first used in a North Carolina newspaper in 1891. While money growing on trees seems to be a far-fetched fantasy, if you should inherit an avocado grove, you will find truth in this concept when you see your fruit being sold for a dollar (or more) a piece.
I was inspired to write about money trees after receiving an email from Fred Kigerl who wondered why his recently acquired Malabar chestnut had lost its leaves and if there is anything he can do to revive it. When a recently acquired indoor plant loses all its leaves, it can have to do, first of all, with shock. It was growing in a greenhouse under perfect conditions. The amount of light, water, and fertilizer was constant, supplied in accordance with its needs. Now it’s growing in a home environment that may include drafts of air blowing onto it from a central heating system, too much or too little light and, worst of all, inadequate humidity (especially in winter, when the air in Los Angeles is driest). Since winter growth is minimal in any case, if the soil in your pot is wet, let it go bone dry and then keep it barely moist until the approach of spring when longer days, more humid air, and warmer temperatures may bring your plant back to life.
Speaking of defoliation, Nancy Rosen sent a picture of an oak tree that, wearing a nice mantle of foliage when planted in the fall, has now lost all of its leaves and she is concerned. I don’t think she has anything to worry about since the oak in question is probably a deciduous species. My guess would be that it’s a valley or white oak (Quercus lobata), the most common deciduous oak in California which, like many oak species, can easily live for several hundred years. The most famous local example of a several hundred year old valley oak may be found in the parking area at Orcutt Ranch in Chatsworth.
The city of Paso Robles, by the way, was named after the valley oaks that were found growing there. Robles is derived from robur, a Latin word for “strong” and refers to the high quality of hardwood in this species of oak. Encino, on the other hand, refers to live or evergreen oaks, in particular our local coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) that may be found in the park behind Encino Elementary School, on the corner of Balboa and Ventura Boulevards. In case you are considering consuming their acorns, know that valley oak acorns are considerably milder than coast live oak acorns although the flour made from both types of acorns requires considerable leaching of bitter tannins before it can be made into bread or pancakes.
Tip of the Week: One of the most decorative large shrubs or small trees for local growing is toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). This time of year it is covered with red fruit which, while attractive to birds, is toxic to people. There are those who say that Hollywood got its name from this shrub which, like many species of holly (Ilex spp.), has serrated leaves and red fruit. Until today, it can be found growing in the Hollywood Hills. In the 1920‘s, due to poaching of toyon’s branches for holiday decorations, a law was passed prohibiting removal of branches growing on any public land or on any private land except your own.