Lacquer tree © Andrew McRobb/RBG Kew

Lacquer tree

Lacquer tree in Chinese script

Rhus species

Lacquer trees (Rhus verniciflua) are cultivated for their sap, which is used to make a durable coating called lacquer. The sap is so poisonous even its vapours can cause extreme rashes, so here we have planted a close, but safe relative. Lacquer can be polished to a high gloss, and the sap can be coloured by adding the mineral cinnabar or carbon black to make red and black.

Lacquer is used to coat a variety of objects. In a process that can take at least a year, craft specialists may apply hundreds of layers of lacquer to an object, to create depth and beauty. The built-up surface can be carved with designs, or inlaid with mother-of-pearl, or incised and filled with gold powder.

The seeds and leaves are used in Chinese medicine to treat internal parasites and to stop bleeding.

Back to the list of plants and objects in China Landscape

This lacquer cosmetic box, made about 1800 years ago, is painted with clouds and immortals in red and black, and inlaid with strips of silver. The trunk of this lacquer tree is slashed to collect sap. © Tony Kirkham/RBG Kew

Right: The trunk of this lacquer tree is slashed to collect sap.

Top left: © Andrew McRobb/RBG Kew
Bottom right: © Tony Kirkham/RBG Kew