By Monika Maeckle
Most of us know the Texas Mountain Laurel as a harbinger of spring. Its buxom, purple blooms, their fragrance reminiscent of grape Kool-Aid, often signals the passage of winter. The usually shrubby native grows to an average 15 feet, but San Antonio’s University of the Incarnate Word hosts the state champion Texas Mountain Laurel on its campus, just yards from the Lourdes Grotto and not far from the headwaters of the San Antonio River. The champ climbs to an impressive 32 feet.
“This tree is enormous!” said a visibly impressed City Forester Michael Nentwich, upon inspecting the state champion. The “champion” designation lauds the grandest, largest examples of each species in our state and places them on the Big Tree Registry.
Nentwich said that this Texas Mountain Laurel impresses because of its mass. “We don’t usually see these as a single trunk,” he explained, adding that the typically shrubby, multi-trunked trees must be trained to grow in such a way. The Texas Mountain Laurel at University of Incarnate Word has been pampered, he said.
That’s not to say the tree isn’t tough. Known for its drought tolerance and slow growth, the wood of the Mountain Laurel rivals mesquite in toughness. Nentwich mentioned that Texas Mountain Laurels can take the abuse of our extreme temperatures and lack of water. This one stands in a harsh environment, in the middle of a parking lot , surrounded on three sides by asphalt and only a small turf area compacted by foot traffic. And yet…it thrives.
Texas Mountain Laurels have a knack for endurance. They can take extreme weather, lack of water, and “conks,” said Nentwich, which are tree-specific bracket funghi that can grow anywhere on a tree trunk. “When they have an injury, they just move on,” he said. Texas Mountain Laurels and other trees have the ability to compartmentalize decay by walling off the disturbed tree mass, not allowing it to spread.
Texas Mountain Laurels are an appropriate and popular landscape plant for San Antonio and ares south to San Luis Potosi and west to New Mexico. As evergreens, their waxy foliage shows nicely all year long. After their early flowers, the trees produce intriguing Mescal bean pods, housed in brown, rough tamarind-like shells. The beans can range in color from red to cream, and according to folk wisdom, the lighter the bean’s color, the more “magic” it contains. Careful, though, the beans are highly toxic. The also have been tapped for use as beading in jewelry and some people carry a Mescal bean in their pocket or purse for good luck.
Nentwich mentioned that old Mountain Laurels are so hardy and can take such abuse that in their old age they can appear as decrepit as “a perforated tube.” The wood of older Mountain Laurels is especially prized, he said, offering a tough wood with an alluring gold/amber color. “These trees are beautiful on the inside,” he said.
The Champion Mountain Laurel at Incarnate Word
Species: Sophora secundiflora
Height: 32 feet, 2 inches
Canopy: 33 feet, 4 inches
Diameter at breast height: 19 inches
Circumference: 5 feet
Age*: Unconfirmed reports and local folklore suggest the tree may be 100 years old.
Location: Near the grotto and close to the administration building on the campus of the Univeristy of the Incarnate Word, just west of Broadway and north of E, Hildebrande Ave.
Get there by bus: Take Route 8, get off on stop F on Stadium Drive, head north on Stadium Drive until you reach Devine Road. Park is on your left.
Also known as: Mezcal bean tree, Mountain laurel, Mescal bean, Mescal bean sophora, Frijolillo, Frijolito
NOTES: Diameter at breast height, or DBH, is a standard of measuring tree diameter at four-and-a-half feet off the ground.
*Regarding the age of trees, arborists and foresters are reluctant to cite them. The only accurate way to determine a tree’s age is with an increment boring test, whereby a hollow drill bit is bored into the tree trunk. Very traumatic for the tree. Since soil and water availability determine tree growth, some trees grow huge in several decades while others live a century and can be much smaller. The tree’s temperament is also a factor.
In short, when it comes to determining tree ages, size doesn’t matter. We will cite educated guesses by certified arborists for the ages of featured trees, unless scientific or historical data are available.
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Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. She covers nature in the urban environment for this website. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @monikam.