What’s that fragrance wafting on the spring breeze? It reminds me of, hmmm, let me think…grape soda! Where could it be coming from??
Truly one of the most beautiful of Texas native plants, this is the gorgeously blooming Texas Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora. A slow-growing, small tree, the Mountain Laurel produces luscious purple, sweet-fragranced flower clusters for a few weeks in February/March and has rich, abundant foliage for the entire year. I’ve grown two in my small urban lot: one is about 28 years old, the other a few years younger. Neither are in full sun–where the laurels are at their best–but they’ve both flowered each spring, some years more than others, and both have provided dense foliage that birds appreciate and humans admire.
A drought tolerant, tough tree, Texas Mountain Laurels are native to the Texas Hill Country, west to New Mexico, and south to parts of Northern Mexico. They’re not picky about soil, but want good drainage. I’ve never experienced any insect damage on my trees and laurels are deer resistant plants.
Texas Mountain Laurels grow and bloom best in full sun, but they are also great plants for shade and part shade, they grow slowly with fewer blooms. My older tree has grown up in the shadow of a good-sized Red Oak tree, but it always dresses up in its spring flowers and most years the purple-cluster blooming is excellent.
As the Texas Mountain Laurel is one of the early spring bloomers, it’s an especially important nectar source for pollinators. My honeybees always partake of the rich blooms, but butterflies, native bees, and a variety of flies buzz around the tree constantly during its flowering.
The migration of North American Monarch Butterflies doesn’t always coincide with the flowering of the laurels, but often the two events are sync-up and it’s wonderful to observe the fluttering Monarchs.
Texas Mountain Laurels are known for their intense, grape soda-like fragrance. Some people love it, others find it cloying. I like the fragrance, but interestingly, I can only detect it at night or when my nose is snug-up in a bloom cluster. I have a fairly good sense of smell, but this particular fragrance eludes me, with those couple of exceptions.
Unfortunately, the Texas Mountain Laurel doesn’t have a long bloom time. That’s the flaw in a nearly perfect plant! Blooming occurs over a 3-4 week period, faded blossom parts falling to the ground, creating lovely lavender sprinkles around the tree.
After the blooms, come green legume-like pods. Texas Mountain Laurels are in in the Pea or Fabaceae family and their pods and seeds are definitely bean-like.
In years when the blooms are prolific, the seed pods follow the same pattern.
By autumn, the pod clusters hang from limbs like dangling earrings, rattling like mini maracas when shaken. They are attractive in their own right.
Eventually, the pods break open and reveal hard, scarlet beans which fall to the ground, ready to usher in the next generation of tree.
Over time, tiny seedlings grow from the fallen seeds.
These seedlings are easily transplanted, or you can leave them where they landed. Mountain Laurels are tricky to transplant when the seedling is taller than about 12 inches because these laurels have deep tap roots, and unless you get the whole root, the transplant will die. Over the years, I moved a few baby laurels around in my garden and given away even more. Because of its slow growth, the gardener will require patience to see tiny seedlings to adulthood. The good news is that this plant is readily available in most nurseries. I personally wouldn’t by anything smaller than a one-gallon container; it will take a decade or more to reach shrub or small-tree size. The wait is worth it, though!
This post is part of a series I call A Seasonal Look. Most plants change their looks over the course of a year: they bloom, set seed, maybe change foliage color, drop foliage, and become bare-limb when dormant. Or perhaps they’re evergreen, blooming on-and-off throughout the year, according to seasonal variations. Certainly Texas Mountain Laurel is no different in that it demonstrates changes. In late winter the plant begins its ramp-up to flowering, bub spikes grow with spring blooms to follow; seedpod development occurs during late spring, continuing their maturity through summer. By fall, the toasty seedpods are ready to drop, allowing the tree to rest before spring flowering beckons.
After the purple flower power show, Texas Mountain Laurels are a steady presence in the landscape: the luxuriant, rich green foliage surrounds warm, textured bark, creating a lovely shaped tree. Some gardeners prune to a single trunk, but if you do that, you’ll always have to prune, because the plant wants to grow and sprout new limbs. I’m on team multi-trunk: I love the natural shape of these trees and see no need to prune to a formal shape. Nature has done a fine job of fashioning something exceptional–why mess with it?
From late spring, going forward, the Texas Mountain Laurels look like this:
And in summer and autumn:
During the the winter months, the laurels are a green oasis in the dormant garden. Even after ice encases the foliage,
…the verdure of the leaves prevail, a harbinger of new growth and life in the garden.
Texas Mountain Laurel is a stunning, hardy and resilient large shrub or small tree, beautiful during Spring:
Such pretty flowers and glossy foliage! It reminds me of a native wisteria.
The flowers are similar, both in color and bloom time.
How coincidental that a colleague just asked about this species in Nevada only a few days ago. The name is quite variable. I still know the genus as Sophora.
I guess that its “season” is upon us, it’s a plant worth noticing and asking about.
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I believe that it is popular in Nevada because it is resilient to the arid warmth. I really do not know why it is not more popular here than it is.
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One of my favorites. I discovered one growing in a most inapproiate place and I dare
not touch it
I hate it when a wanted plant is in a place I don’t want. Especially one the laurel as it’s so hard to move!!
Love the smell of Mountain Laurel blooming. Look forward to the rest in this series. Always happy to find your new posts in my inbox. Thank you.
It’s an intoxication fragrance, that’s for sure. Millie, if you look at the menu bar at the top of the blog page, you’ll see the tab ‘A Seasonal Look’–that’s where the other posts are. I’ve mostly focused on native plants, but there are one or two native to Mexico that grow well here in Central Texas. I like doing this series, but I have to remember to get shots from each season, and sometimes, I think I have everything I need, only to realize…oops!
What a wonderful post, Tina. This is one of my favorites — I can’t wait to see how the odd little one down at the Brazoria refuge does post-freeze. It’s scent is so alluring. There have been times when I’ve caught the scent long before I’ve found the tree, and felt compelled to keep following it until I could enjoy the sight of the flowers. Most of the time, the ones I find are a little scrawny, and not nearly as attractive as yours, but it’s great fun finding them tucked into a hillside or next to a stream.
From your post, I’m assuming (and certainly hoping) that your power’s been on for a while. I hope your damage was minimal, too. It’s been quite an event to witness, even from a distance.
Thank you, Linda–that means a lot coming from you! Texas Mountain Laurel is such a lovely thing and just such a great plant year-round. This particular specimen has been a beautiful shape and such a favorite of all the birds. I’m sorry it’s aging.
We got power at 5:15am Sunday morning. We lost it at about 5am Wednesday, so four full days. It was frustrating, but it wasn’t as cold as two years ago and more of an inconvenience than something too serious. We don’t have babies, or serious health issues. Still it’s amazing how many things we need electricity for and don’t even think about!
Sadly, the most damaged thing was the Mountain Laurel. It’s alive, but now even thinner, as some of the top-most foliage had to be pruned because those limbs broke with the ice. I’m planning a follow-up post in a few days.
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I wish more people would follow your example and show a species in its many stages and throughout the year as the seasons change. In printed form that’s prohibitively expensive but in online form it’s readily doable. I like your picture of the blossoms fallen on stones on the ground.
I agree! I hope it’s instructive to see plants in their glory, and then their not-so-pretty stage. Those petals are really pretty, I think. That photo is from a few years ago, when there was a particularly good bloom.
Another Texas legume that likes to decorate the ground with its blossoms is cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens).
Yes! Those are really charming too!
Texas Mountain Laural is one of my favorites with such an unbelievable scent. It took me a while to get my mind around the name, as Mountain Laural is the state flower of my home state Pennsylvania. The Texas version looks nothing like it and where are the mountains? Sadly, it is hard to grow in our wetter climate.
That’s funny about the name! Since it’s native to the Hill Country, I’m guessing that’s where “Mountain” came from, but who knows? It would like your wetter climate, that’s for sure, but I’ll bet there are some around, just not as many as we enjoy in this part of the state.
Oh, what a luscious bloomer! How lucky you are that it’s a native, stunningly beautiful tree for you. Great photos and great post!
Thanks, Beth–the Mountain Laurel is a grand little tree to have in the garden–or anywhere!
Texas Mountain Laurel is lovely in all seasons and quite different from that similarly named shrub found here in New England. And yours is even lovelier when visited by a butterfly…or two.
It’s a pretty one, to be sure, and tough as nails! Yes, the pollinators go ga-ga over the blooms!!
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Yours are so lovely! I did notice mine are trying to get bloom spikes so I’m very thrilled about that!
Ooh, I hope you get lots of blooms! They don’t last long, but are wonderful!
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