Dead Man’s Fingers

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
Decaisnea fargesii is commonly known as dead man's fingers or the blue bean tree. This shrub is native to western China and other western Asia countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, and northeastern parts of India, though its common names originate from Ireland. This shrub is often as wide as it is tall, and this particular measured to 7m in the winter of 2014. It commonly flowers in the summer while its fruit ripen in the fall around Halloween. This plant is distinctive for its blue sausage-shaped fruit, which give its various common names. Although the fruit is edible, the tree mostly serves an ornamental or decorative purpose when grown in non-native parts of the world.
Christina Chandra
Collected Data
Tree shape: 
Date of tree entry: 
7.00 m
There are too many multiple trunks to accurately measure the DBH, so this is just an estimate
The bark of D. fargesii. One study of the diet of a snub-nosed monkey found that these monkeys would eat the lichen off the bark of this shrub in the summer. (Li, Y.)
D. fargesii has long, odd-pinnate compound leaves. Leaves can grow up to 3 feet long and have 13 to 25 leaflets. Each leaflet can be up to 6 inchies long and 4 inches wide.
Reproductive Structures
D. fargesii has yellow-green to green bell-shaped flowers that bloom in the summer. They come in racemose influorescences. In each raceme, the older flowers are found near the base of the shoot and more flowers continue to grow along it as the shoot grows. They have often 6-sepaled and 1 to 1 1/4 inches, but they have no fragrance. The plant is monoecious meaning it has separate male and female flowers on one plant. The blue bean tree is self-fertile but many can be planted closely together for cross-pollination. The flowers are fragrant at night.
The fruit of the Decaisnea fargesii is what gives the plant its common name. Bruised-colored and finger-like, the fruit resembles dead man's fingers, and because the fruit ripens around Halloween, this name seems especially appropriate. This fruit would be considered a hesperidia because of the leathery outer layer and the single ovary full of seeds found inside like a berry. The fruit has been described as a jelly-like pulp that can be eaten raw from one's hands. The fleshy pulp has been depicted as delicate and sweet like the taste of a watermelon.
  • Late winter, after the snow has melted
Natural range of distribution: 
Decaisnea fargesii is naturally found in the southern Himalayan regions of Western China, Nepal, and the state of Sikkim in India. The plants are found in mixed forest along mountain slopes and in moist areas. However, the plant has also been successfully planted in many other parts of the world.
Origin, history, and uses: 

D. fargesii​ is native to the southern Himalayan regions in Asia, but it has reached many other parts of the world such as the United Kingdom or the United States. When grown outside the native grounds, these plants typically serve an ornamental purpose.

In Chinese folk medicine, the blue bean tree root has long been used as an antirheumatic or antiussive drug. Its fruit is sometimes used to treat swollen carbuncles. Possible other medicinal purposes have been studied for preliminary data showing anti-tumor characteristics (Kong et al). The Chinese name is 猫儿屎属 (mao1’er shi3 shu3), meaning cat feces. In the Sikkim state of India, aboriginal Lepchas relish the fruit, though it is rarely eaten anywhere else outside the region.

Media and Arts

Decaisnea fargesii
by Christina Chandra

My daughter is a witch,
her black velvet skirt dragging along the sidewalk
in the cool fall dusk.

I am led down nostalgia’s path,
of nights as a princess, a superhero, some animal,
and Magenta from
The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

We stop at the shrub
on 23 Grove.
Its yellowing, falling leaves,
leaving behind claw-like shadows,
resurrects memories of a Himalayan trek.

Decaisnea fargesii,
the blue bean tree,
Dead Man’s Fingers.

I pick a blue ornament for my daughter.
I tell her a story.

I peel back the blue skin,
revealing black watermelon-like seeds
surrounded by white, gelatinous flesh.
‘This is how he was tortured,’ I say.

On the cold, moist mountain slope,
they tortured him.
His fingers severed,
hung limp on a tree.
I watched,
as pink turned to blue and purple
with the easing of day into night.

I adorned the tree with tiny bells
resembling the racemes
of the fragrant flowers,
bowing down from the branches.
I kneeled beside him
as his breathing slowed.
The chimes were his final sounds
on the earth.

I buried him at the foot of the tree,
his appendages ultimately folding inwards
unlike the splayed limbs of the tree.
I prayed for him with
each pinnate, compound leaf layed
over the mound.

When dawn marked a new day,
I tasted the blue fruit for the first time.
It had a slight sweetness,
and I continued on my journey.

‘They look more like cat poop,’ she says.
So we carry on,
seeking treats sweeter and stickier
than the insipid pulp
of my beloved Dead Man’s Fingers.