Thursday, March 17, 2016

Grape Gum in the Garden??!?

Although our “Goodness in the Garden” blog primarily addresses growing conditions in Southeast Wisconsin, outdoor plants aren’t yet blooming in SE Wisconsin!  For a change, let’s feature a plant which thrives AND blooms during March in the Southwestern part of our country (sadly, it only grows in USDA  Zone 9-11 but it surely is a delightful plant to see and smell.)
This plant is known by various names:  
Texas mountain laurel or mescal bean

The genus of this woody evergreen was changed some time ago—currently it’s known as Calia secundiflora (formerly Sophora secundiflora).  This heat-hardy plant is classified in the Fabaceae family; it forms brownish gray pods, but its seeds are poisonous.   
Texas mountain laurel captures attention when it blooms in spring and emits an intoxicating aroma, which reminds me of grape chewing gum; others claim it smells like grape soda!

Texas mountain laurel is a total sun lover and adapts to modest amounts of moisture.  Its blue violet blooms are a deep hue, fading to light purple and white as they age.   The plant appears in botanical gardens in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, but also thrives on rocky ledges where only the most tenacious plants survive.  (I saw several specimens growing in the wild, on steep, rocky slopes in New Mexico.   It seemed happy there!  Since this plant does NOT handle severe pruning, it might be happier on the side of a mountain than in a formal garden.)

Much like the lilac bushes we grow in Wisconsin, the flower buds begin to develop around August, but those beautiful, aromatic purple blooms emerge in spring.   Although I’ll have to be content with growing lilacs in Southeast Wisconsin,   I have never smelled a lilac that compared to the unique, grape-gum aroma of the amazing Texas mountain laurel!

M. Lynn Schmid,   Certified Master Gardener
 A.A.S. Landscape/Horticulture/Arboriculture