The money tree myth is an ancient Chinese legend that a money tree can bring good fortune and prosperity to people. Believed to date back to the Han Dynasty period in Chinese history (roughly 200BCE to 200 CE), there are also pagan traditions of tree worship dating back much further than that. Made of metal, money trees have been discovered in western China in Sichuan Province and neighbouring areas. Interesting folk stories add to their enigma.
Money tree plants are often available for sale in areas with a large Chinese or South East Asian population, as they are often used as part of Chinese New Year celebrations. They are seen as a symbol of good fortune and luck. The actual species often used as money trees for feng shui purposes is the 'pachira aquatica'. This is a plant with five lobed palmate leaves, something apparently considered to be very powerful by followers of feng shui. The traditional practice of money trees is believed to date back thousands of years, and archaeological examples discovered include those made from bronze and green-glazed earthenware. Some are decorated with scenes of paradise, depicting magical and mythological gods and monsters.
One story concerning the money tree tells of a sculptor who sees some tree roots and wants them to be used in his work. As he has no tool, he cannot cut the tree down. To protect it from the attention of others, he puts fake paper money into the tree's branches so that people will think that it is sacred and leave it alone. He goes home and over a matter of weeks, recruits some workers to cut the tree down. However, on returning there, he discovers that people have put real paper money into the tree's branches so that the tree has actually become sacred and is guarded by a spirit. This spirit tells the artist that if he destroys the sacred tree, he will be cursed. The spirit ends up buying the roots from the sculptor for silk hidden away in a graveyard. The type of tree in this story is a locust tree.
The money tree has become popular at Chinese New Year, when money tree plants are made of branches of pine or cypress, placed into a porcelain pot filled with rice grains. Pine nuts and melon seeds are often sprinkled over this rice. Coin garlands, made of gold and silver-coloured paper, adorn the 'money trees', while they are topped with a genie. Symbols of long life, such as deer and cranes, are often also made of paper and used to decorate these money trees, with a care that is suitably reverential.