The Curious Case of the Yellowwood Tree


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.


Though the nature of its oddball distribution pattern iscurious to say the least, 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 perform great 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 is 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.


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 sight 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. In some instances, even pink flowers are produced! 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]

Taxonomic Discoveries: My Version of the Butterfly Effect

Witnessing a giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) in flight is an incredible experience. It is the largest species of butterfly found in the US and Canada and with its yellow and black wings, it is impossible not to take pause and watch it flutter around the canopy. I will never forget the first time I saw one as a child. It was one of those moments that solidified my obsession with the natural world. Fast forward a few decades and now I can't help but ponder what kind of gardening I would need to do to attract these incredible insects to my yard. What I discovered surprised me to say the least. I had to plant something in the citrus family. 

We are all familiar with the fruits of various Rutaceae. This family contains the genus Citrus, providing humanity with oranges (C. × sinensis), lemons (C. × limon), grapefruits (C. × paradisi), and limes (mostly C. aurantifolia). These are largely tropical and subtropical trees, struggling to hang on anywhere temperatures dip below freezing regularly. How on Earth was a butterfly whose larva specialize on this family flitting around in temperate North America? What's more, reports place this species as far north as southern Quebec. I was obviously out of the loop on the taxonomic affinities of this family.

A little detective work turned up some surprising results. Temperate North America does in fact have some representatives of the citrus family. They are a far cry from an orange tree but they are nonetheless relatives. This inquiry actually solved a bit of trouble I was having with some riparian trees in my neck of the woods. As some of you probably know, trees are not a strong point of mine. I had encountered a few small woody things with compound leaves of three and dense clusters of greenish flowers. At first I thought I had found a rather robust poison ivy specimen but closer inspection revealed that wasn't the case.

Instead I had stumbled across something new for me - a common hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata). This cool looking tree is one of the giant swallowtails larval host trees, making it a member of -(you guessed it)- the citrus family. More often this small tree grows like a shrub with its tangle of multiple branches but they can reach some impressive heights, relatively speaking of course. Trees topping out at a height of 5 meters are not unheard of. Another common name of this tree - wafer ash - hints at its superficial similarity to a Fraxinus. Its compound leaves and wafer-like samaras are a bit of a curve ball for northerners like myself. It has a rather wide and patchy distribution throughout North America, and many subspecies/varieties have been named.

Common Hoptree ( Ptelea trifoliata  )

Common Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata )

The other bit of this taxonomic journey involves another small tree, although this time I was better acquainted. Another host for the giant swallowtail is the prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum). It is interesting to note that both of these northern host trees superficially resemble ashes but I digress. The prickly ash is also small in stature and is most often found in thickets consisting of its own kind. As its common name suggests, you wouldn't want to go barreling through said thickets unless you wanted to donate some blood. It is well defended by sharp prickles on its stems. It does produce fruit but they are rather small and berry-like (technically follicles) and are distributed far and wide by birds.

Prickly Ash (  Zanthoxylum americanum   )

Prickly Ash ( Zanthoxylum americanum )

Both trees are rather aromatic. They produce volatile oily compounds like most of the family, making them smell quite pleasant. Their small size makes them interesting specimen trees for anyone looking for something unique to put in a native landscape. What's more, they host a variety of other larvae as well, including those of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly (P. troilus).

Together, these two species are the most northerly representatives of the citrus family, making them quite special indeed. I am happy that my interest in attracting giant swallowtails to my property resulted in a fascinating dive into the geography of this interesting family.

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

Further Reading: [1] [2]

Meet the Fringe Tree

The fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)

Coming across a fringe tree in full bloom is a spectacular experience. Known scientifically as Chionanthus virginicus, some may surprised to realize that this is a native tree to eastern North America. Though it has found its way into the horticultural trade, it is still not terribly common. Today I would like to celebrate this interesting tree as well as bring to your attention some alarming facts that might threaten its existence in the wild. 

Fringe tree can be found growing wild in the understories and edges of forests throughout eastern North America. It tends to be quite a rarity on the edges of its range, hitting its densest distribution in a handful of the southeastern states. Individual trees are either male or female but both produce quite a floral display. They produce dense clusters of wispy white flowers, which do give off a slight fragrance but one has to get up close and personal with the branches to really appreciate it. 


The fringe tree hails from the same family as the ash trees - Oleaceae. Unfortunately, this taxonomic relationship may be bad news for the fringe tree in the long run. At least one study has shown that fringe trees can serve as hosts for the emerald ashborer. The sample size on this study was quite low, only 4 of 20 adult trees showed signs of completed larval development and adult emergence holes. Subsequent observations suggest that fringe trees are in fact viable hosts for this invasive pest, which is certainly cause for concern. Perhaps the one thing fringe tree has going for it are its sparse populations, making it harder to detect by these wood boring beetles. Only time and a lot of attention will tell. 

Regardless, I think this is a wonderfully underrated tree for a native eastern North America landscape. It is rather hardy and puts on quite a show every spring. As the Grumpy Gardener so eloquently put it, "It’s tougher than dogwood, more dependable than saucer magnolia, longer-lived than cherry, and smells better than stinky Bradford. And it’s beautiful." I couldn't agree more. Just make sure that if you know of wild fringe tree populations or have some growing on your property that you regularly monitor them for signs of emerald ashborer infestation.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] 

Further Reading: [1] [2]