Texas Mountain Laurel Follow-up

In my last post, Texas Mountain Laurel, A Seasonal Look, I wrote that these lovely small trees are year-round, stalwart evergreens, even when under ice.

My Texas Mountain Laurels have successfully withstood Texas’ capricious weather patterns, from extreme drought and heat, to mild winters suddenly punctuated by bitter cold, icy conditions. Two years ago, during the historic nine day deep freeze, not-so-affectionately called Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon, both of my laurels endured damage. Several limbs, big and small, died back. Some I pruned, others I left for the birds’ perching pleasure. No blooms happened that March, but both trees survived, albeit thinner in foliage and form.

Last week, another cold snap settled in for several days. It wasn’t as cold, only 29-32F, but rain, turning to ice, covered everything.

The half-inch of ice played havoc on tree limbs (and utility lines) all over Central Texas. The only damage in my garden was to my older Texas Mountain Laurel. This specimen, already weakened by age and 2021’s Snowpocalypse, suffered several breaks due to the heavy ice, impacting its canopy.

The tree survived, but a significant bit of top foliage is now gone. It wasn’t a lot of foliage, but enough of these extra bits now gone add arboreal insult to broken-branch injury.

This pile of foliage and limbs now sits out by the street, awaiting the City of Austin yard waste trucks to haul it away, to continue existence as compost, mulch, or Dillo Dirt.

What remains has shaken off the ice and is ready to move on to spring–and beyond.

This is the older Texas Mountain Laurel a few days before the ice storm. The upper left quadrant of foliage is where I have recently observed the Eastern Screech Owl couple perching together, as they meet one another each evening at sundown.

In the photo below, you can see that the foliage in that area is missing. However the tree remains viable, though weathered and aged.

The canopy is not as dense as it once was, the green not as robust and full. This tree is entering its last years, any ice damage adds to its struggles.

This second laurel has always grown shade. It’s never been as large or full as the other and sustained some damage from 2021’s storm.

This year’s ice storm had no real impact on this little tree. It’s ready for its spring flowering, limited though it is by shade.

Severe cold events and summer droughts have challenged both laurels, but they are tough plants and they stand their ground. The possibility of extreme weather events should always be considered when choosing plants for a garden. I wouldn’t hesitate to plant more Texas Mountain Laurels–and I have!

Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora): A Seasonal Look

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.

Early bud development
Buds near bloom time

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.

Blue Orchard Bee, Osmia lignaria
Eastern Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes
Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus

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:




The Spring Garden

Despite late freezes, drought, and earlier-than-normal warm temperatures, it’s been a lovely, affirming spring in my garden. Plants are growing, leafing out, and blooming in their typical order and roughly on their same schedule. Some, like the multitudes of Tradescantia, Spiderwort, were so eager for spring to happen that they’re over-performing. Of course that has nothing to do with the fact that I routinely fail to control them by weeding during fall and winter. Ahem.

My Spiderwort are pass-alongs varieties and they’ve mix-n-matched for years, so I don’t have a definitive species. Because of their height, I suspect T. gigantea, but regardless of species, the flowers are stunning in shades of purples with a few pinky hues. Some are pure lavender, with rounded petals,

…and some are deeper lavender with or triangulated petals

Certain individuals bloom in shades trending pink. These below sport ruffly petals.

No matter their color or form, Spiderworts are favorites of the honeybees. Flowering early and for most of the spring season, bees are keeping busy with the nectar sipping and the pollen collecting.

The first yellow in my garden is typically Golden Groundsel, Packera obovata. The little group I have brightens a shady spot.

The groundsel echos the Adirondack chairs: cheery blooms, comfortable chairs.

Last year’s deep, destructive freeze ended 2021 hopes for the luscious clusters of blooms from Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora. This year, both of my Mountain Laurels flowered beautifully, if too briefly. These blooms are known for their grape juice fragrance. Weirdly, I can’t detect their very sweet fragrance unless my nose is right up in the flowers or at night, with whiffs of the grape scent on the wind.

The irises I grow, all pass-along plants, have bloomed prolifically this spring, more so than in many years.

I think every single bulb, even those that I separated and replanted in the fall, have pushed up stalks and adorned those stalks with flowers. The irises are still going strong and are now joined by European poppies. Tall, leafy American Basket flower stalks await their turn to shine in the sun, while a couple of Martha Gonzalez rose bushes add pops of rich red and burgundy-tinged foliage.

Spiderworts, irises, and poppies are all plants-gone-wild this spring, but the heat and drought have sadly rendered the columbines less floriferous. As well, given my now full-sun front garden, columbines won’t grow there–they fry in Texas sun.

This one, as well as a couple of others, still have a place in the back garden. I plan to add more in the shadier areas because I can’t resist these graceful additions to the garden.

Hill Country Penstemon, Penstemon triflorus, are in top form this year. Hummingbird moths and Horsefly-like carpenter bees are regular visitors.

I wonder if pollinators have a hard time deciding? Hmmm. Penstemons or Spiderworts? What am I in the mood for??

Of course, it’s not only gorgeous bloom time, but foliage presents a worthy rival in beauty and form during verdant spring. This silvery-green Mexican Feathergrass, Nassella tenuissima, waves, adding movement and action in the garden. In the past, I’ve witnessed migrating Painted Buntings nibbling at the tiny seeds that feathergrass produces. I wonder if those colorful birds will find this patch as they move through my garden this spring?

The drought continues and summer will be a bear, but I’m grateful for the gentle artistry and renewal of life that is spring.

What’s in your spring garden this year? I hope it’s colorful and ever-changing and provides a respite from the world’s troubles.

Happy spring gardening!