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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Three Terrific Trees

Mexican Plum in full bloom
Trees are often planted for their ornamental value, or to provide shade, but there are many other reasons to plant them.  They improve air quality by producing oxygen and storing carbon, which offsets the harmful byproducts of burning fossil fuels.  They can moderate the effects of sun and wind, reduce air conditioning costs, and clean the air by trapping dust and pollen.  Trees can also be credited with increasing property values, lowering our heart rates and reducing stress, and providing shelter and food for many types of wildlife.

In Central Texas, three terrific trees that are native to our area include Escarpment Black Cherry (Prunus serotina var. eximia), Mexican Plum (Prunus mexicana), and Carolina Buckthorn (Frangula or Rhamnus caroliniana).  All three of these trees are medium-sized, deciduous, display fall color, and benefit wildlife by producing fruit.

Escarpment Black Cherry blooms
Escarpment Black Cherry is a distinct variety of Black Cherry, found only on the calcareous soils in our wooded hill country canyons, slopes, and floodplains.  Up to 50 feet tall, this tree is prized for its attractive silvery trunk and branches, five-inch long clusters of showy white blooms that occur in March and April, juicy summer fruits, and vivid yellow to red fall foliage.  While the small dark red to purple-black cherries it produces are edible, the rest of the plant is not, and the cherries are often eaten first by birds.  Several butterflies, including Viceroy, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Two-tailed Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple, and Striped Hairstreak use this tree as their host plant. 

Escarpment Black Cherry fruit
Often called the ‘star of our native plums’, Mexican Plum is easily recognizable in spring, as it is an early bloomer.  Before the leaves appear, white to pale pink, five-petaled flowers cover the 15 to 35 foot tall tree from February to April, and they are extremely fragrant, attracting several species of native bees and butterflies.  Plums up to one-inch wide turn from yellow to mauve to purple as they ripen July through September, and they are edible for humans and wildlife alike.  Thick, five-inch long leaves provide food for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Cecropia Silkmoth, and turn a showy shade of orange in autumn. Mature trunks are a beautiful satiny blue-gray with horizontal striations, typical of most fruit trees.

Mexican Plum fruit
A flowering Carolina Buckthorn
Lesser known is the Carolina Buckthorn, an understory tree 12 to 15 feet tall, with oval, shiny green leaves and small yellow clusters of blooms produced near the leaf stems in May and June. It prefers bottomlands, canyons, and streamsides, and in light shade it is airy and tiered.  Bright red fruits turn to black when ripe, and are relished by many birds and mammals.  The leaves stay green into late fall, turning various colors from yellow-gold to bronze-sienna as the weather cools. Carolina Buckthorn is also the host plant for Spring Azure, Gray Hairstreak, and Painted Lady butterflies.

Carolina Buckthorn berries
Consider adding one or all of these terrific trees to your property.  While the best time to plant trees in Central Texas is in the fall, it’s never too late to plan for future enhancements to your native landscape!