San Antonio Express News
March 6, 2005
By Dr. Jerry Parsons
It must be March–the questions about the purple blue blooms hanging in clusters and having the wonderful scent of grape chewing gum have begun!! People are once again enjoying the large evergreen shrub that grows all over South/Central Texas and is referred to as the Texas Mountain Laurel. The scientific name of the Texas Mt. Laurel is Sophora secundiflora. The genus name, Sophora, is from the Arabic name, Sophero, and the species name, secundiflora, refers to the one sided inflorescence. Other vernacular names are the Mescal Bean, Frigolito, Frijollito, Frijolillo, Coral Bean, Big Drunk Bean, and Colorin. The plant is native to the limestone soils in central, southern, and western Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. It is not the same Mt. Laurel found in the Eastern United States-that species will not survive in our area of Texas, and our Texas Mt. Laurel does poorly in those “foreign” areas. Our Mountain Laurel is practically indestructible as a landscape plant. It will survive in our poor alkaline soils.
Nothing seems to bother the hardy, drought tolerant Mt. Laurel. Hard freezes (below 20 degrees F.) will eliminate blooms, but won’t kill the plants. These natives seem resistant to the dreaded cotton root rot fungus which is deadly to 90 percent of all other Texas landscape plants. No foliage disease bothers the glossy, evergreen leaves. Occasionally foliage worms may devour some leaves, but the plant comes right back. Because the Mt. Laurel is an evergreen shrub or tree which will grow to a height of eight to 12 feet tall or more (30 feet), this may be the ideal privacy plant for our area of Texas. No other evergreen is as durable or adaptable. Plus, it blooms in spring!
These beautiful plants are the answer to many of this area’s most serious plant problems. In the past, this outstanding landscape plant was only available as balled and burlapped (B and B). Large B and B trees and shrubs dug from the wild are very expensive because of the tremendous amount of labor involved in digging the plant, burlapping it and hauling it. As many as 50 percent of all Mt. Laurels dug do not survive this process. It is no wonder that this labor intensive process costs the consumer well over $300 for a four to eight foot, multi-trunk tree!
Because of some innovative work in propagating native plants of Texas by Lone Star Growers in San Antonio, Mt. Laurels are now available as container grown plants and are very affordable. For years these plants were described as “slow growing” and impossible to grow economically in containers. Modern technology and persistence have paid off. Large, containerized plants are currently available in local nurseries. Plants that are three to four feet in height in five gallon containers cost less than $25 each. Smaller plants that are one to two feet tall, in one gallon containers cost less than $7. As the plants begin to flower and the demand for this beautiful well adapted plant increases, some nurseries actually sell the small plants for less than $3 and the larger plants for less than $17.
With the availability of inexpensive containerized Mt. Laurel’s, these evergreen, blooming plants can be used for creating a privacy hedge or shrub mass. To plant containerized plants, simply dig the hole as wide, but no deeper than the container. Use the same soil pulled out of the hole to fill in around the plant or as your back fill soil. Make a circular dam around the hole (this makes watering easier). Water in thoroughly after transplanting to settle the soil around the root system.
To determine what size plant to purchase for your landscape, simply dig the holes for the plants BEFORE you go to the nursery to purchase the plants. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? This is the BEST advice you will ever get for planting trees and shrubs in this area of Texas. The gallon size plants require a hole 12 inches deep; the five gallon size requires hole at least twice that deep. After you realize you can only dig six inches deep in your landscape, and you will have to blast to go any deeper, you will quickly decide to buy the gallon size plants. You can dig as deep as you can, even if that is only four to six inches, and then cover the remainder of the root ball or system with potting mix or purchased soil. Believe it or not, this is the BEST way to plant Mt. Laurel because it grows as a native in rocks, and is only killed by planting in an area which has poor drainage. When planting a hedge or shrub mass, space the five gallon plants five to six feet apart and the one gallon plants three feet apart. Mt. Laurels only need moderate watering. Check for moisture by digging with your finger around the base of the plants if moist, don’t water or you will rot the roots.
The plant is picturesque at any age. When barely more than a twig, the plant bears fragrant, eight inch long, violet blue clusters of pea shaped flowers in early spring. Decorative, woody, silver gray pods follow and split open in late summer to reveal bright red beans (frijolitos). The beans are poisonous, but the outer coat is so hard, it is believed they will pass through the digestive system without harm.
I was infatuated by the name “Big Drunk Bean.” It seems that the bean of the Texas Mt. Laurel contains a hallucinogen chemical called cytisine. In the old days Indians used to crush some beans, mix with liquors, and have some real far-out parties! However, since the beans can be poisonous, moderation was the key to survival. Too many beans in the brew resulted in dead party goers. There was a fine line between drunk and dead.
These red beans were prized by Indians. In fact, Indians believed that a necklace of Mt. Laurel Beans presented as a gift to someone would protect that person from bodily harm. The red beans were so valued as an ornament that they were actually used as Indian currency. The redder the beans, the higher the currency value. Of course, Texans for yers have enjoyed using these red beans to “burn your buddy.” Bored, resourceful children trying to create a bit of excitement would rub a red Mt. Laurel bean on the sidewalk until the friction would cause the tough skin of the bean to become burning hot. The troublemaker would then drop the hot bean dow thne britches, dow the shirt or simply touch the tender skin of the intended victim to get an immediate and loud response. This used to be fun in the “good old days,” but I should warn you you old timers that schools have a zero tolerance policy for binging drugs to the campus, and the Mt. Laurel bean is considered a drug! So instead of your child being amused by getting to “burn his buddy,” you will not find it amusing when your child is suspended for drug possession at school. This has happened in Texas several times, so burners beware!
So there you a the story of a native Texas plant with the inappropriate name of Mountain Laurel making it big in landscapes. Enjoy the fragrance and enjoy the beauty of a Texas Mountain Laurel in your landscape. And don’t be trying to get the recipe perfected…this plant is for beautifying the landscape…not sending you into a drugged state of euphoria.
This article was written by Dr. Jerry Parsons, Extension Horticulturist (Vegetables) with Texas Cooperative Extension in Bexar County.