Since time out of mind trees have been surrounded by myth and legend, tied to the tree itself or artistic representations of it. Perhaps the most well-known example is one which very few people know the origin of – and even if you have the urge to find out, it’s difficult to pin down any facts about it. What are we talking about? It’s a term we all know; the money tree.
In modern times, particularly in the western world, the words ‘money tree’ are often preceded with ‘Do you think I have a…’ – often by irate parents faced with the demands of their offspring. Although it is used in a humorous sense there is actually a kernel of truth behind the expression, but most of us don’t really know about this. Just to make matters even more complicated there are a handful of trees that do get called money trees, although sadly none of them will leave you with a nice crop of dollar bills.
So from practical, through mythical and legendary, to superstition and finally to decorative, the phrases ‘money tree’ has an interesting history. This goes back a long way – in fact it starts around 200BC, with variations on the story that cross over one another right up to the 1980s.
The story starts in China. During excavations of Han Dynasty tombs beautiful and ornate sculptures were unearthed, of delicate bronze trees that bore coins where the leaves should be. It’s believed that these were buried with loved ones in order to provide both a map to the heavens and some financial stability in the afterlife. Those found have ranged from very small pieces, right up to large ones that can reach 54 inches high. One of the pieces of this story that runs alongside this, and is thought by some Chinese scholars to have been the inspiration for these burial objects, was a Chinese method of casting coins that resulted in something called a “coin tree”. Although far less romantic than guiding loved ones to the heavens, these coin trees were so named thanks to the shape of the molds into which molten bronze was poured. Many coins were produced from one casting; the mold was long and slender, with a central channel running from top to bottom. Part way up this stem branches would run out, with each branch carrying a number of coins. Their placement was reminiscent of leaves on a tree, each one connected to the branch much like Airfix models are attached to their frames inside the box today. These branches would continue to the top of the mold so that when the hardened bronze was removed it strongly resembled a tree, before each of the coins was snapped off and had the nub of metal filed down to give a smooth edge.
It is not a stretch to imagine that this was indeed the inspiration behind the saying.
So what of other stories that have kept these words in such common use? A very well-known Chinese legend features a peasant who was approached by an aged man, who presented a seed to the poor man. The peasant was given instructions to plant and water the seed, but warned that the substance needed for this “watering” was his sweat. Once the seed sprouted the watering was to continue, and now the thirsty plant would no longer require his sweat, but instead his blood. The peasant’s feelings can be imagined, but he followed the instructions and eventually was rewarded with a beautiful tree. Beautiful, and very special – when shaken it scattered coins on the ground at his feet. The peasant could then plant the coins to grow more of these money trees, making him an extremely rich man for the rest of his life. A variation on this is a tale of a down-on-his-luck farmer who prayed to his god one night to bring him fortune. The next day he found an unusual tree with plaited stems in his barren fields; he bought it inside and cared for it. Eventually the tree produced tasty edible nuts that the farmer replanted to grow more trees, before making a handsome living selling the nuts themselves. The story teaches that it is hard work that rewards us, a philosophy that’s still at the heart of Chinese culture.
So how do these stories fit in to modern life, and how do these pieces of history relate to the curiously ornate plants found in garden centers around the world which are also called money trees? The entwined stems of these trees decorate offices and homes around the world, flourishing with a minimum of sunlight and often bought as gifts for luck and prosperity. One slightly cynical commentator suggests that the origin of these particular money trees came from a truck driver in the 1980s, who planted five seeds of the Malabar chestnut in one small pot and then proceeded to plait the stems as they grew. The resulting plant became symbolic of the five elements of Feng Shui, as not only did it have five intertwined stems but the leaves themselves are palmate groups of five-lanced leaflets. They are said to be a living representation of the five elements (water, earth, fire, metal and wood) and so have become commonplace as good luck gifts. The practice is thought to go back much farther than this and in truth, although the Malabar chestnut (Pachira aquatic) is the most common example of the modern money tree, other plants can be used for the same purpose. The succulent South African Jade plant is a good example, along with other varieties of Pachira. For this purpose these trees work perfectly, as they are easy to grow indoors – requiring very little but watering and a draft-free spot.
So although there is no tree flourishing in the wild that will shower us with money, there is a rich and interesting history surrounding this common term. That just makes the giving of one of these trees even more thoughtful.