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.

1 comment:

  1. Would you be willing to sell some of those mescal beans if you have any yellow ones??