Showy trees – more than a pretty face
Published January 15, 2022 in the McAllen Monitor.
Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist, South Texas Border Chapter
We’re closing in on the tree-planting window – November to February is tree planting time and the popular winter mantra of master naturalists, professional landscapers, urban foresters and other Valley tree experts.
Consider planting a tree soon but keep abreast of weather predictions in case we have a repeat of last February’s brutal freezing temperatures and icy wind.
Before planting, two important questions are: does my landscape have room and what is my goal? If supporting wildlife is important, and you have space, two worthy native trees to consider are anacua (Ehretia anacua) and brasil (Condalia hookeri).
Anacua has a moderate growth rate and can eventually reach heights of 45 feet with substantial girth. In spring, and after summer rains, the tree will be drenched in white, heavily fragrant blooms that attract butterflies and bees for nectar and pollen. Ripe, bright orange fruit provides important food for birds and mammals.
Equally important, the tree’s thick canopy offers shelter and resting and nesting sites for birds and other critters. Plant in full sun to shade in well-drained soil.
Brasil also has a moderate growth rate and can reach heights of 30 feet but generally shorter in our area. Tiny green flowers bloom summer through fall followed by green berries that turn red, then black when ripe, a favorite of birds, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, opossums and quail.
Brasil also offers protection to birds for roosting and nesting and shelter from predators for small mammals, quail and other critters. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil.
Up close, neither tree is particularly friendly; the anacua’s dark green leaves are sandpaper rough on both sides and may scratch or briefly irritate the skin; brasil’s numerous, dense branch tips are like wicked daggers. However, both trees are drought tolerant once established, keep their leaves year long, are considerably eye-catching in the landscape and have tremendous value in the native habitat, attributes which should overshadow any cautions.
A third beneficial tree is native wild olive (Cordia boissieri), a year-round showy specimen popular in home, commercial and public landscaping because it blooms in all seasons. It can reach heights of 25 feet or more, also with a moderate growth rate. It can be shaped by pruning, or the lower branches can be left to reach the ground and offer shelter for critters. Also called Texas olive, it is not found much further north than Willacy County.
Wild olive blooms are small clusters of large, funnel-shaped white blossoms with yellow centers, an important nectar source for birds, hummingbirds, butterflies and other beneficial insects. The fruit is a drupe with a thick seed about an inch long – the fruit is food for birds and wild animals rather than humans. The tree keeps its leaves all year; they are large and rough on the top side. Because the fruit becomes slick as it deteriorates on the ground, this tree is best planted away from walkways.
Guides to proper tree planting and tree selection are available online: counties.agrilife.org/cameron/files/2012/01/Tree-Guide.pdf and the local Native Plant Project handbooks at www.nativeplantproject.com/handbooks.