Do you remember grape-flavored Kool-Aid or grape lollipops? Wouldn’t you like that luscious scent in your garden? If you are also looking for a small, native tree or large bush to bring to your garden this spring, give the fragrant native Texas Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora, a try! It is also known as Mescal Bean, but it is not related to mescal, which is derived from particular agave plants and is the basis for tequila.
A Native Evergreen Shrub
Texas Mountain Laurel is a native evergreen shrub that can be trained as a multi-trunked small tree. It can be pruned to keep it shrub-like. While it can reach 30’ tall if given lots of water, it usually holds in the more manageable and desirable 10’ to 15’ range and gets about 10’ wide. It is highly drought tolerant after getting established for a year or two and is cold tolerant to about 10°F. It prefers poor, rocky soil, but is tolerant of any well-drained soil. It is native to central Texas, running west to New Mexico and south to central Mexico. Unsheared Texas Mountain Laurels make excellent informal screens or hedges, but it can also serve as a lovely accent tree in a tight space. Planting lighter color or contrasting color plants in front really accents the dark green, leathery foliage.
Flowers and Seeds
Texas Mountain Laurels are slow growers with dark green, glossy, compound leaves and drooping clusters of purply-blue flowers. Flowers range from dark violet to bluish-lavender to, rarely, white and waft a powerful, sweet, grape fragrance over considerable distances. The bloom clusters can be 3″ to 7″ long, appearing in February into March, and are very showy, but they are poisonous if ingested. However, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators love their nectar! Deer steer clear of Texas Mountain Laurel. If you discover your tree is not blooming come spring, it is likely the flower spikes were pruned off. They form quickly in the spring right after the current year’s flowers finish – odd-looking knobby growths – so be watchful in your pruning.
The fruit of Texas Mountain Laurel appears in a semi-woody, felty, gray pod which ages to dark brown when the seeds are ready to be planted. Collect the seeds in mid- to late summer when the pods have dried and darkened and the seeds are bright red, although it is all right to leave the seed pods on the tree over winter, harvesting and planting the next spring when the soil is warm. You can separate the seeds from the pod and store in a cool, dry place. Soaking them in warm water to soften the shell around the seed and then scarifying the shells with a file or knife increases your chances of success. You can also harvest unripe seeds – when the seed shells are pinkish – in late June or early July. Plant these seeds immediately and they should sprout quickly. Plant seeds directly in the ground or in pots large enough to accommodate root growth for the first year (1 gallon). Older Texas Mountain Laurels don’t take transplanting well – they develop a long taproot that often gets cut. Be careful to not disturb the root ball if you transplant one. Seedlings grow slowly for the first two years, so don’t be in a rush! They are worth the wait! If you want to attempt a head start, cuttings from young trees may root as well. Remember, this tree is native to drier regions, so after it’s established – the first year or two – don’t overwater it. Rainfall should be enough, except in times of severe drought.
Genista moth larvae
Texas Mountain Laurels are not bothered by many pests; however, the Genista moth larvae can decimate the foliage on a full-grown tree in a few days. At the first sight of caterpillars (when they are still small), use a foliar spray of Bt – Bacillus thurengiensis. It is essential to cover both the upper and lower sides of all the leaves. Bt has a short residual time on a plant, so it may be necessary to spray repeatedly to destroy an infestation. Insecticides containing Spinosad formulations are useful for larger caterpillars or heavy infestations and some formulations are registered as organic. These have a longer residual on the plant than Bt.
Prized by Native Americans
The lacquer-like orange, red, or even maroon seed shells are beautiful and were prized by Native Americans for decorating clothing and ceremonial uses. The seeds inside the extremely hard shell contain an alkaloid known as cytisine or sophorine, which is highly poisonous if swallowed. It is related to nicotine and is a narcotic and hallucinogen. Keep away from children and pets to be safe!
Mescal bean pods at least 6500 years old have been found in west Texas and Mexican archeological digs at caves and rock shelters. The colorful seed shells have been found used as decoration on cloth remnants, while seeds were found in trash deposits and in medicine and/or hunters’ pouches. Evidence has been found in some areas of the use of mescal beans as medicine or in narcotic drinks as part of religious rituals, as well as religious societies formed around these rituals. A yellow dye can also be made from the sapwood.
Whether you want a grape-y sensory flight back to childhood, a beautiful flowering shrub or small tree in your landscape, or a connection with Native American rituals and lifestyles – consider adding a Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secudiflora) to your landscape! You will love it! Now, I’m off to find a grape lollipop….
Mountain Laurel, Mescalbean The Virtual Museum of Texas’ Cultural Heritage (a branch of The University of Texas at Austin, College of Liberal Arts)