Thursday, February 23, 2012

Texas Mountain Laurel

My new yard is just full of these plants, also known as Mescal Beans, Sophora secundiflora. I tend the call the bright red seeds "mescal beans" and the whole plant "mountain laurels", even though that can be confusing, because there's a completely unrelated tree, Kalmia latifolia, which is also called a "mountain laurel". It just seems like a prettier name to me than "mescal bean", and this is a very pretty small tree/large shrub. It's also called a "Texas mountain laurel" to distinguish it from the other mountain laurel that doesn't grow in Texas, though the two trees are in separate plant families.

The Texas Mountain Laurel is a legume, like mesquites, beans, and peas. You can tell by the peanut-like pods it gets, and like many legumes, it has compound leaves, which in this species are shiny and evergreen. But the most striking thing about mountain laurels are the blooms, and mine have just started popping!

It gets these large inflorescences of light purple flowers that smell, remarkably, like Grape Kool-Aid, or Welch's Grape Soda. I get thirsty for that childhood favorite just smelling them. Maybe the grape association is only due to the color of the blooms fooling you into thinking of grape, but they are very SWEET and fruity smelling, without much of a hint of any floral notes. When the wind is right, you can smell a whiff of sweetness in the air from trees pretty far away.
The bees sure like them too. I wonder if honey made from mountain laurel flowers also tastes like grape soda. I am reminded of something from The Botany of Desire about how flowers actually look and smell beautiful to attract bees, and humans just so happen to have similar tastes as bees. It's a nice coincidence.

Speaking of flowers, my new yard also has two neglected rose bushes. I pruned them way back, in the hopes of encouraging them to grow bushier (and they also had a lot of dead canes), but I left this one branch because it had a flower on it. The rose has a much more "dignified" fragrance than the mountain laurel. It's a smell that says "classy grandmother" to me, rather than "kid guzzling Kool-Aid".

Though the same plant with the sweet smelling flowers also has a less innocent side. My new yard is also littered with red "mescal beans" that come from the peanut-like pods of the Texas Mountain Laurel. These in the picture are a bit faded. Straight from the pods they're a bright, shiny red. Indigenous people used to use them as a hallucinogenic drug in religious rituals. Here's an interesting article about that. Mescal beans were eventually replaced by peyote, a plant that is reputed to give a more spectacular high with fewer side effects than the mescal bean. However, today the bright red seeds are still made into beads, and strings of them are worn in peyote rituals.

After reading so many warnings about how toxic mescal beans are, I'm not going to try eating any, but the thought of drilling holes in some to make beads is appealing to me. I've seen some pictures of pretty bean necklaces online. I especially like the ones that have a mixture of more than one seed, like mescal beans mixed with shiny black Mexican buckeyes.

I'm mainly just glad to have so many of one of my favorite native plants in my new yard, one that is so beautiful and has such an interesting history. My ancestors used signs from nature like certain plants blooming to mark the seasons, so it seems to me like Sophora secundiflora would be an especially good plant to mark the begging of spring here in the Hill Country.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Mockingbird Moon

Been too busy to blog lately, due to a combination of teaching, wedding planning, and moving. Haven't been paying much attention to mockingbirds lately, but I did catch some photos of some other birds that have more to do with the subject of last moon's post...

This flock of absolutely gorgeous birds drinking out of my neighbor's overturned-trashcan-lid birdbath are Cedar Waxwings. "Waxwings" because the bright red and yellow tips on their wings and tails supposedly looked like the wax people used to use to seal envelopes, and "cedar" because they love to eat berries, including juniper ("cedar") berries. They migrate through here every winter in big flocks, feeding on Ashe juniper berries. So here are some more fans of the dreaded Cedar.

But what I really wanted to show you are photos of my new garden(s)!

Or at least what might become gardens. My new yard is so heavily wooded, that there are only two spots which may be sunny enough for planting edibles. One patch shown here is in the front yard. Dare I plant a vegetable garden in the FRONT yard?

The other patch is in the backyard. This area has the remnants of a previous occupant's raised bed lined with cinder blocks that has long since become overgrown with grass again.

My nightshades are waiting patiently to go to their new home. I've got potato seedlings from true potato seeds, tomatoes, and peppers here.

Meanwhile, I've been horribly neglecting the current garden. Just been so busy, and it seems like a waste of effort if I'm going to have to mow it down soon anyway. We've been getting a lot of rain lately, and the garden is being taken over by clover, which is probably just as well. You can barely see some of the red and green lettuce and peas sticking out.

I feel a little bad abandoning the old garden, but I guess that's how it goes. I'm going to try to transplant the garlic to the new garden, since it was a bit of an investment buying it from Seed Saver's Exchange, but I don't think I'll bother trying to save the lettuce, peas, etc. *sigh*

I promise once I move in I'll start posting a lot more about getting the new garden ready. I need to get a soil test done, rent a rototiller and till it, get a load of compost or manure delivered, and plant my transplanted garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers. Lots to do!