The Curious Case of the Yellowwood Tree

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The immense beauty and grace of the yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) is inversely proportional to its abundance. This unique legume is endemic to the eastern United States and enjoys a strangely patchy distribution. Its ability to perform well when planted far outside of its natural range only deepens the mystery of the yellowwood.

The natural range of the yellowwood leaves a lot of room for speculation. It hits its highest abundances in the Appalachian and Ozark highlands where it tends to grow on shaded slopes in calcareous soils. Scattered populations can be found as far west as Oklahoma and as far north as southern Indiana but nowhere is this tree considered a common component of the flora.

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Though the nature of its oddball distribution pattern is open for plenty of speculation, it is likely that its current status is the result of repeated glaciation events and a dash of stochasticity. The presence of multiple Cladrastis species in China and Japan and only one here in North America is a pattern shared by multiple taxa that once grew throughout each continent. A combination of geography, topography, and repeated glaciation events has since fragmented the ranges of many genera and perhaps Cladrastis is yet another example.

The fact that yellowwood seems to do quite well as a specimen tree well outside of its natural range says to me that this species was probably once far more wide spread in North America than it was today. It may have been pushed south by the ebb and flow of the Laurentide Ice Sheet and, due to the stochastic nuances of seed dispersal, never had a chance to recolonize the ground it had lost. Again, this is all open to speculation as this point.

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Despite being a member of the pea family, yellowwood is not a nitrogen fixer. It does not produce nodules on its roots that house rhizobium. As such, this species may be more restricted by soil type than other legumes. Perhaps its inability to fix nitrogen is part of the reason it tends to favor richer soils. It may also have played a part in its failure to recolonize land scraped clean by the glaciers.

Yellowwood's rarity in nature only makes finding this tree all the more special. It truly is a site to behold. It isn't a large tree by any standards but what it lacks in height it makes up for in looks. Its multi-branched trunk exhibits smooth, gray bark reminiscent of beech trees. Each limb is decked out in large, compound leaves that turn bright yellow in autumn.

When mature, which can take upwards of ten years, yellowwood produces copious amounts of pendulous inflorescences. Each inflorescence sports bright white flowers with a dash of yellow on the petals. It doesn't appear that any formal pollination work has been done on this tree but surely bees and butterflies alike visit the blooms. The name yellowwood comes from the yellow coloration of its heartwood, which has been used to make furniture and gunstocks in the past.

Whether growing in the forest or in your landscape, yellowwood is one of the more stunning trees you will find in eastern North America. Its peculiar natural history only lends to its allure.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Palo Verde

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One of the first plants I noticed upon arriving in the Sonoran Desert were these small spiny trees without any leaves. The reason they caught my eye was that every inch of them was bright green. It was impossible to miss against the rusty brown tones of the surrounding landscape. It didn’t take long to track down the identity of this tree. What I was looking at was none other than the palo verde (Parkinsonia florida).

Palo verde belong to a small genus of leguminous trees. Parkinsonia consists of roughly 12 species scattered about arid regions of Africa and the Americas. The common name of “palo verde” is Spanish for “green stick.” And green they are! Like I said, every inch of this tree gives off a pleasing green hue. Of course, this is a survival strategy to make the most of life in arid climates.

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Despite typically being found growing along creek beds, infrequent rainfall limits their access to regular water supplies. As such, these trees have adapted to preserve as much water as possible. One way they do this is via their deciduous habit. Unlike temperate deciduous trees which drop their leaves in response to the changing of the seasons, palo verde drop their leaves in response to drought. And, as one can expect from a denizen of the desert, drought is the norm. Leaves are also a conduit for moisture to move through the body of a plant. Tiny pours on the surface of the leaf called stomata allow water to evaporate out into the environment, which can be quite costly when water is in short supply.

The tiny pinnate leaves and pointy stems of the palo verde. 

The tiny pinnate leaves and pointy stems of the palo verde. 

Not having leaves for most of the year would be quite a detriment for most plant species. Leaves, after all, are where most of the photosynthesis takes place. That is, unless, you are talking about a palo verde tree. All of that green coloration in the trunk, stems, and branches is due to chlorophyll. In essence, the entire body of a palo verde is capable of performing photosynthesis. In fact, estimates show that even when the tiny pinnate leaves are produced, a majority of the photosynthetic needs of the tree are met by the green woody tissues.

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Flowering occurs whenever there is enough water to support their development, which usually means spring. They are small and bright yellow and a tree can quickly be converted into a lovely yellow puff ball seemingly overnight. Bees relish the flowers and the eventual seeds they produce are a boon for wildlife in need of an energy-rich meal.

However, it isn’t just wildlife that benefits from the presence of these trees. Other plants benefit from their presence as well. As you can probably imagine, germination and seedling survival can be a real challenge in any desert. Heat, sun, and drought exact a punishing toll. As such, any advantage, however slight, can be a boon for recruitment. Research has found that palo verde trees act as important nurse trees for plants like the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). Seeds that germinate under the canopy of a palo verde receive just enough shade and moisture from the overstory to get them through their first few years of growth.

In total, palo verde are ecologically important trees wherever they are native. What’s more, their ability to tolerate drought coupled with their wonderful green coloration has made them into a popular tree for native landscaping. It is certainly a tree I won’t forget any time soon.

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Meet the Redbuds

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

I look forward to the blooming of the redbuds (Cercis spp.) every spring. They can turn entire swaths of forest and roadside into a gentle pink haze. It's this beauty that has led to their popularity as an ornamental tree in many temperate landscapes. Aside from their appeal as a specimen tree, their evolutionary history and ecology is quite fascinating. What follows is a brief introduction to this wonderful genus.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

The redbuds belong to the genus Cercis, which resides in the legume family. In total, there are about 10 species disjunctly distributed between eastern and western North America, southern Europe, and eastern Asia. All of them are relatively small trees with beautiful pink flowers. Interestingly enough, unlike the vast majority of leguminous species, redbuds are not known to form root nodules and therefore do not form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria called rhizobia. This might have something to do with their preference for rich, forest soils. Until more work is done on the subject, its hard to say for sure.

One of the most interesting aspects of the redbuds are their flowers. We have already established that they are quite beautiful but their development makes them even more interesting. You have probably noticed that they are not borne on the tips of branches as is the case in many flowering tree species. Instead, they arise directly from the trunks and branches. This is called "cauliflory," which literally translates to "stem-flower." In older specimens, the trunks and branches become riddles with bumps from years of flower and seed production.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

It's difficult to make generalizations about this flowering strategy. What we do know is that it is most common in dense tropical forests. Some have suggests that producing flowers on trunks and stems makes them more available to small insects or other pollinators that are more common in forest understories. Others have suggested that it may have more to do with seed dispersal than pollination. Regardless of any potential fitness advantages cauliflory may incur, the appearance of a redbud covered in clusters of bright pink flowers is truly a sight to behold.

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]