Retama (Parkinsonia aculeata): A Seasonal Look

As I close out the year of learning about the Retama, Parkinsonia aculeata, for Tree Following at  Loose and Leafy, join me for year-round look-see at this fascinating native tree to parts of North and South America. Indigenous to Texas and westward to California, as well as to large areas of Central and South America, this beautiful small tree is a boon for wildlife and native plant/wildlife gardeners alike.

This October of 2015, my Retama tree is green, leafy, and full of life.

There is little change from my September and August Tree Following posts, except that there are few flowers left to complement the feathery foliage.

Interestingly, there aren’t many seed pods on my tree this year, either.  Seed development varies from year to year and I’m betting that there are fewer because the mass of late spring blooms were knocked of during our heavy May/June rains: fewer flowers, fewer seeds.

In October, with summer continuing its hold of warm (not hot!) afternoons, arid breezes, and no rain, the Retama presides, lush-n-lacy, over my back garden.

Retama foliage is a series of leaflets aligned opposite one another along paired leaf stalks.

As the days shorten and the temperatures cool significantly, the leaflets adorning the paired stalks begin dropping off.

The stalks will be left, for a time, as a spidery remembrance of the elegant and unusual

If or when there is a hard freeze (after all, Retama flourishes in tropical and semi-tropical climates), all manner of Retama foliage–leaflets and stalks–vacate the tree, joining with other deciduous leaves–either on the ground as mulch, or in the compost bin for future soil nourishment.  Here in Austin, that will typically occur in late December and January.

The limbs and trunk of the tree remain green throughout winter. This adaptation is valuable for survival  and stunning to observe.  The transfer of the photosynthesis process from foliage to limb allows Retama to continue feeding during times of drought, and to maintain vigor during the relatively short, but temperature variable, winter months.

In the deep of winter (such that it is in the Southwest U. S. and other regions where Retama is native), the green of the limbs and trunk provide life-affirming color and are an attractive feature in the winter landscape.

Without foliage, the thorns on the branches are more noticeable. Be careful, they bite!

As spring approaches in March, the Retama responds with green,


…green foliage.

Retama is a member of the Fabaceae, or legume family.  Other Fabaceae plants are nicknamed “broom”, if they sport slender stems with tiny leaflets.  The unusual leaf or “broom” arrangement of Retama lends a soft, verdant look to the tree throughout its growing season.

By May or June, clusters of bright yellow flowers form and  will flower continuously, causing pollinators  to visit regularly and, no doubt, eagerly.

The Retama flower is an interesting one, because the petals are bright yellow, except for one which is called the “honey” petal. The honey petal is pale to deeper orange.

Once pollinated, the colored petal deepens and  remains on the tree longer than the other petals. The flowers adorn the plant in response to rainfall and can bloom for a long period of time–late spring, all through summer, and into the fall.  My particular Retama does not grow in full sun, so it’s never achieved the mass blooming that a Retama in blasting sun would produce.

In this year (2014-2015) that I’ve Tree Followed the Retama and profiled it for A Seasonal Look, the tree experienced a range of extremes–not that unusual here in Texas, as this is a land of extremes–but noteworthy.  We enjoyed a “normal” spring with mild temperatures and average rainfall.  However, in May and early June, we received nearly 20 inches of rain, temporarily halting an 8 year drought. Known as a “rain bomb,” that type of flooding has always occurred in Central Texas and is often, though not always, a drought-buster.   The Retama’s response to the heavy rains was to drop its first flush of glorious flowers that had opened in May.

For the latter part of June and into July, my Retama was flower-less, but it did produce more clusters as the summer months progressed.   Once the rain stopped in early June and the Texas summer temperatures and dry conditions settled in for the duration (and duration and duration…), it took a little time for the tree to set out its signature bloom sprays. I didn’t water my gardens until mid-July and have only watered four times as of this post. After the flowers were pummeled by the May rains, the tree bloomed up again, much to the delight of the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Oh, and the gardener too.

In more typical years,  the Retama is a solid bloomer during the toughest months of our growing season and with minimal rain or irrigation. After the wet spring and then with no rainfall until late August/early September (and not much then), many plants succumbed.  Even some native plants that are evolved to withstand the capriciousness of the Texas climate, struggled this summer.  The Retama? It flowered and foliaged along just fine, thank you very much:

In July,


…and September.

It was green, blooming and gorgeous. What’s not to love about that?

Birds are constant companions of this

As the flowers fade and  the seed pods form, first green,

…then brown,

…the tree adds other delectables to the landscape besides pollen and nectar:  small mammals and birds (in particular) enjoy feeding on the seeds.  In areas of the world where Retama is invasive (parts of Africa, India and Australia), it is most likely birds who’ve spread Retama to problematic levels.  I don’t want to blame birds for Retama’s invasiveness–that’s squarely on people and lack proper management for introducing non-native and potentially harmful species to new areas without first experimenting with natural controls.  Where Retama is native, it’s an excellent plant:  water wise, wildlife friendly, and beautiful. Where it’s an introduced aggressor in the landscape, it’s proven a serious problem for indigenous flora and fauna, requiring great efforts to remove.  For example, Australia has banned the sale and planting of Retama.

Have I mentioned that it’s always best to plant native?

Here in Central Texas, the Retama is a plant which needs little, if any, supplemental watering.  It grows remarkably fast, reaching to “tree” height in a matter of a few years. I mulched it when it was a baby tree (I think I purchased it as in a one gallon pot), but I don’t mulch established trees.  Retama is commonly available at locally owned nurseries, especially in late summer and fall, which are good times of the year to plant perennials and trees here in Texas.  Retama has a graceful natural form and doesn’t require pruning, except if a branch dies–or perhaps if the gardener is weary of getting dinged on the head by a formidable Retama thorn.

Retama trees aren’t particular about soil types, so no amendments are necessary. If much irrigation or rainfall is the norm, Retama will seed out, but in its 12 or 13 years in my garden, I’ve only found a half-dozen seedlings from my tree.

If you live in Retama’s native range, you’d be hard-pressed to grow an easier or lovelier tree to accent  the southwestern garden.

In Spring,




…Retama is a stunning tree: hardy and reliable, wildlife friendly, and darned pretty to look at.  Who doesn’t want plants with those descriptors?


Tree Following: Retama in January

Celebrating a new year and the third month profiling my tree,  Retama, Parkinsonia aculeata, I thank Lucy at Loose and Leafy for hosting Tree Following. I’m a day late because I host my own little meme, Wildlife Wednesday on the first Wednesday of each month, but I certainly don’t want to miss reporting about my tree or viewing what others have written about theirs.

There are no major changes with the Retama since December.

The Retama has fewer leaf stalks and virtually none of the tiny opposite leaflets remain, so it’s mostly about the green stems and bark.

Stems and bark remain green, year round, so the tree is especially nice in winter as it always has cheery, fresh color.

The one exception is this branch,

…which has died.  I was going to prune it off, but I noticed that birds often perch on it.  The branch is not in my way and is not bothersome in any other fashion, so I’ll leave it.  Who am I to remove a perfectly good bird sitting area?

Birds like this tree.  A lot.

It’s rare that I look at the Retama and isn’t some bird, somewhere, in the tree.

House Sparrows, …love it.

Inca Doves,

…love it too.

And though it’s not an avian sort,

…this squirrel hugged the Retama early yesterday morning as a cold front dropped temperatures to the coldest of the season so far.

The remaining leaf stalks are green and continue to give the tree a feathery look against the various winter skies.

I notice the thorns along the branches more this time of year–better to avoid them as I dump mulched leaves around the base of the tree and in the garden in which it resides.

It’s consistently chilly now, downright cold at times, so I imagine the low temperatures will take care of relieving the Retama of its remaining foliage.  The green branches and trunk will endure though, preparing the tree for its long growing season ahead.

Please enjoy other trees from all over as they’re followed this January by visiting Loose and Leafy and its celebration of all things trees.


Foliage Day, December 2014

I’ve profiled foliage from my garden in the past, but I’m going to hang out with the Europeans today by joining with Christina and her beautiful blog,  Creating my own garden of the Hesperides, as she hostesses Garden Bloggers’ Foliage Day for December 2014.

Folks who’ve relocated to Austin, Texas have complained to me (usually in  whiny voices), there’s no fall color here.  That gets my “Texan” up a bit, because we do enjoy autumn color in Central Texas, at home and all around. Lovely fall foliage.

IMGP2940.newThe color evolution happens later than in other parts of the Northern Hemisphere, closer to the actual start date for winter.  Additionally, the turn of foliage is gradual, beginning in November, peaking in late November/early December, and typically finishing by New Year’s Day.  It’s not a dramatic foliage show, loud and boisterous like you’d think something in Texas would be.  Instead, the change is gradual, subtle, and gentle.

In my gardens, the two Shumard OakQuercus shumardii, trees extend their color change over many weeks.

There are several species of oak trees in Texas that are commonly referred to as “Red” oak.  I’m guilty of misnaming the two major arboreal specimens in my back garden as “Red” oaks.  In fact, both are Shumard  Oaks.

Gorgeous trees, I appreciate their many attributes: the shade they cast in summer, the cover and food provided for the many birds and other wildlife who visit or make these trees home, and the fall foliage mosaic (albeit in December) that these two trees provide.

Another tree residing in my realm, though probably not one I would have planted on my own, is the American Sycamore, Plantanus

I don’t hate this tree, but it’s a bit water thirsty for Central Texas–it’s naturally found along stream banks and bottomlands which hold moisture from floods, and that’s not where my home resides.  The tree was established when I bought my home and I wouldn’t remove a mature tree, so it’s remained as a major shade source for my gardens. Aside from its struggles during dry periods (drought-stress causes defoliation), the leaves are thick and big. Really big.

Awkward and especially messy in the garden, the leaves don’t break down in any reasonable amount of time. Here you can see a small sampling of Sycamore leaf litter. There are points during late December when all that is visible in certain parts of my gardens are those dinner plate-sized leaves. A garden is not so nice when those huge leaves obscure everything in it!  Sycamore leaves are too large and thick to leave in the garden (for this OCD gardener), or to place, as is, into the compost.  They mat together, forming a barrier against moisture, thus slowing the composting process.

But in the tree, especially during the seasonal change,  Sycamore foliage is quite lovely.

Fluttering in the breeze, in an array of colors,…the leaves are resplendent against the blue sky.

Once the leaves drop and I’ve vacuumed and shredded them, dumped them directly into my compost bin and/or onto the gardens as mulch, the spherical seed pods decorate the tree throughout winter.  In spring, the seed balls explode, releasing feathery seeds aloft in the wind.

On the ground, foliage also makes its presence known.  Floating in the bird baths,


…accompanying the bee hives,

…and blanketing the gardens and pathways.  Here, the brown oak leaves combine with the stalks of the RetamaParkinsonia aculeata.

A bit upwards from the ground sit perennials which also sport fabulous foliage this GBFD. The colorful foliage of the Ruby Red Runner, Alternanthera hybrid, which is part of the biological filtering system of my pond, is

Tiny floral gomphrena puffs accompany the plum leaves. Ruby Red Runner provides foliage interest nearly year round; a hard freeze will render this plant dormant.

The Butterfly VineMascagnia macroptera, showcases lush green foliage and fascinating chartreuse seed pods which resemble butterflies, thus the common name for this native plant to Mexico and southwards.

Currently, none of the seed pods are the rusty-brown they eventually become, but it’s quite a picture when there are differently pigmented “butterflies” resting on the vine.

Firebush, Hamelia patens. speckles after frost damage to its foliage,

…but  I like it.  No blooms remain on this heat-loving, native-to-Florida.  Once we have a killing freeze, it will be dormant until late spring.

Lastly, the Chile Pequin, Capsicum annuum (var. glabriusculum) adds major hotness to the garden.

Pepper hotness, that is.  A beautiful, shade-tolerant and deciduous (in most winters) shrub, many birds (and my husband) favor these chile peppers, the only truly native chile pepper in Texas.  Here, it’s  accompanied by Yarrow, Achillea millefolium.

Such a lovely plant for this time of year.  Who says we don’t have seasonal foliage color in Texas??

For foliage celebrations from around the world, visit Creating my own garden of the Hesperides for GBFD!