GV Gardeners: That Texas Mountain Laurel sweetness

A small Texas Mountain Laurel tree shows off its natural form and dense clusters of purple, fragrant spring flowers.

Have you recently detected a sweet grape scent coming from a small tree smothered in clusters of purple flowers? If so, you experienced the spring freshness offered by picturesque Texas Mountain Laurel tree (Sophora secundiflora).

Friends may debate whether the scent is like grape Kool-Aid, bubblegum, or soda. Whatever you decide, enjoy it because the flowers fade fairly fast, along with their sweet aroma.

This native of Texas Hill Country and Northeast Mexico is also known as Mescal Bean, Sophora, and in Mexico, Frijolito. Originating in rocky limestone soil, it is quite slow growing, but eventually reaches 15 to 20 feet high and 8 to 10 feet wide. If you do not wish to wait years for a mature landscape tree, it is advised to begin with a larger propagated one, at least 15-gallon size if possible.

Leaves of Texas Mountain Laurel are dark green and leathery, producing a lush appearance year around. In early spring, the sweet purple flowers emerge in drooping clusters, much like wisteria. By mid-summer, these give way to fuzzy tan seed pods. Inside the pods are rock-hard bright scarlet seeds.

The flowers and seeds can both be poisonous if eaten, especially to children and pets. However, the risk is somewhat limited because pods and seed coats are extremely difficult to crack open. When ingested, they may pass completely through the digestive system intact. If concerned about the seeds, pods may be clipped off before they mature.

Early indigenous people valued the brilliant lacquer seeds for ornamental and ceremonial uses. Today they are still used in Mexico and Central America by drilling and stringing the seeds to make bead-like jewelry.

Evergreen and cold hardy to 10-degrees Fahrenheit, Texas Mountain Laurel is thornless and one of the cleanest small trees around. It is therefore a good choice for patio and poolside. Plant in full or partial sun in an area with excellent drainage. It prefers water every two to four weeks during summer and once monthly or less in winter.

There is a moth larvae that feeds on leaves, young twig growth, and immature seed pods of this tree. To take care of this problem, apply Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly called “BT,” which is a widely available biological control. Otherwise, Texas Mountain Laurel is not susceptible to pests or disease.

Don’t become alarmed by all of the noise you may hear around these small trees. It seems that Carpenter Bees adore the flowers and heavily congregate around them. Keep in mind that these large black, very loud (think helicopter) bees do not sting. Oblivious to your presence, they may simply be enjoying sips of grape soda!

Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.