Texas mountain laurel seed

Mr. Smarty Plants: Growing a Mountain Laurel from seed can be a challenge

I have harvested Texas mountain laurel pods and extracted the seeds from the pods. The seeds are characteristic red/orange/maroon. When is the best time and best method to introduce seeds into pots?


— Horseshoe Bay

Mr. Smarty Plants: Sophora secundiflora (Texas mountain laurel) is a beautiful and fascinating plant, and Mr. Smarty Plants frequently gets questions about propagation. Be aware that the seeds are toxic if ingested, so keep them away from small children who like to put things in their mouths.

Here’s a previous answer:

Growing Texas mountain laurel from seed is an interesting project that can be frustrating or rewarding, or both.

I’m providing several links with information that should help make this project a success.

The first is the Native Plant Database Page for S. secundiflora. Under propagation, it reads:

Sow scarified seed after the soil has warmed in spring or fresh seed still swollen in pod in fall. Lightly cover the seed in a pot large enough to allow good root development the first year.

A light dusting with a general fungicide is a good precaution to prevent a fungal infection. Mountain laurel seedlings grow slowly the first two years. Cuttings from juvenile trees might root.

Because S. secundiflora is a slow-growing plant, most specimen-sized shrubs are made commercially available by digging them from the wild, and then balling and burlapping. It is difficult for S. secundiflora to survive this kind of transplant because it has a sparse root system with a deep taproot. Because it is impossible to dig up the entire root, the plant often goes into shock and dies.

Fruit maturation occurs mid to late summer, but the fruit will remain on the plant through the winter, finally releasing the seed the next summer.

Young fruit are large, thick, leathery pods that appear brownish gray because of a layer of silky pubescence, which gives the pods a silvery luster.

In their second year, the pods weather to become black and thin-walled, and soon fall from the plant and deteriorate, eventually releasing the seed.

The seeds are usually deep red but can be orangish-red to almost maroon. They are also very hard. Collect seeds when the pod begins to dry and the seeds turn red.

Separate seeds from pods and store in bags or containers in a cool, dry place. Soaking the hard pods in warm water will soften them and make seed removal easier. Seeds must be filed or mechanically scarified with a knife.

Under growing conditions, you see that the plant prefers, among other things, full sun and well drained alkaline soils with a pH of less than 7.2. Here are some other sites with a brief description of contents:

Bob Harms, UT Austin (uts.cc.utexas.edu/~harms/MtLaurel.html): good discussion on germination.

Paul’s Blog (www.wvlandscape.com/blog/?p=153): good general information and use of limestone gravel to raise pH.

Aridzonetrees.com (www.aridzonetrees.com/images/Cut%20sheets/sosec.pdf): good general information.

If you give the plants full sun, provide them with well-drained alkaline soil, and don’t over water them, they should grow. The hardest part might be getting the seeds to germinate.

Mr. Smarty Plants is a service of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. More answers are at wildflower.org/expert.

Texas Mountain Laurel: Intoxicating the Senses

Bluebonnets get a lot of attention this time of year, and rightfully so! After all, they are the state flower and are a glorious sight to see in full bloom. However, there is another Texas gem that blooms this time of year and yet gets little attention in comparison. The Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora) is a Central Texas native that opens its beautiful purple blooms in February and March and intoxicates the senses.

Photo: Flickr/Sally Estrada

The Texas Mountain Laurel is a drought-tolerant evergreen shrub with dark, shiny leaves and large drooping clusters of purple flowers that smell oddly like grape bubblegum. The flowers give way to large seed pods filled with bright red seeds. The Mountain Laurel seed was a commodity that was much sought after by Native Americans. Tribes would trade a horse for about ten of the seeds. They made for beautiful adornments to clothing, had medicinal value, and ceremonial value. The Caddo would use the Texas Mountain Laurel seed in their divination rituals in combination with peyote to induce visions. Medicinally, the Comanche used a concoction made from the seed has been used to ease earaches. The Cheyenne used it for an eyewash.

Photo: Flickr/~mkp*|:~)

Despite its uses in Native American culture, the leaves and seed of the Texas Mountain Laurel are highly toxic to both humans and animals. Ingestion of the seed can cause muscle paralysis, severe headaches, upset stomach, and excessive drowsiness. It is one powerful seed! However, don’t let that take away from the joy the Texas Mountain Laurel will bring. It will bless your garden with beauty year round. Plants are easily transplanted from the wild, and though they are slow growing, are extremely hardy. The butterflies and bees love the fragrant flowers, and the evergreen leaves keep the winter garden interesting when all other trees and shrubs have lost their leaves.

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Mountain Laurel

Sophora secundiflora

This native shrub/small tree is an evergreen that is extremely drought tough. Even in years of extreme drought, they survive when other natives have died. It is a slow grower, but well worth the wait. It’s an excellent screening or accent tree.

Height at maturity: 10-20 feet tall; 8 to 12 feet wide

Light: full sun is best but can take part shade.

Soil: Adapts to most soil types but wants good drainage. Do not over water once it is established. It has a very long tap root, which makes it drought-tough (but also harder to move!).

Flowers: Large scented flowers in early spring that attract all kinds of beneficial insects. Many people describe the fragrance as grape Kool-Aid!

Why not bloom: Maturity is one reason. The other: pruning off flower spikes, which form very quickly in spring, just after this year’s flowers. These knobby growths may look odd, but they represent next year’s flowers. Mountain laurels should only be pruned at trunk branches to shape (if necessary).

Also, Texas mountain laurel can be attacked by the Genista caterpillar. In one day, they can defoliate a tree, so be sure to apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) at the first outbreak. Most likely, you will only have to spray once, but in intense invasions, you may not need to reapply. This foliar application will disrupt the caterpillars’ digestive system and they will stop feeding and die in a few days.

Deer resistance: Yes.

Seeds: The seeds are poisonous if swallowed, but not dangerous otherwise. Once fully mature, the seed pods turn dark brown or gray, and the seeds inside are dark red. The seeds have a very heavy seed coat, making them hard to germinate. But if you wish to try, it’s best to harvest the seed pods before they are fully developed and plant the seeds before they have turned red.



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Tuesday – August 14, 2012

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Seed and Plant Sources, Poisonous Plants, Shrubs
Title: Removing Mountain Laurel Seed Pods from Austin
Answered by: Barbara Medford


Is it best to remove seed pods from Mt. Laurel or leave them on the tree?


We would recommend removing the seed pods from Sophora secundiflora (Texas mountain laurel) when the pods first begin to appear. If you follow the plant link above, you will note this sentence in the first paragraph on our webpage on the plant:

“The brilliant, lacquer red seeds were valued by indigenous people for ornament and ceremonial use; they contain the highly poisonous alkaloid cytisine (or sophorine), a substance related to nicotine and widely cited as a narcotic and hallucinogen.”

Since the seeds are very attractive, there is always the chance of a child, or perhaps a pet, finding one and taking a taste. If you wish to propagate the plant by use of seeds, here are Propagation Instructions from the same webpage:

“Description: Sow scarified seed after the soil has warmed in spring or fresh seed still swollen in pod in fall.”

This would mean you could harvest and use the seed still in the pod before it falls to the ground, possibly to be picked up. The plant is difficult to propagate and slow-growing; please read all of our webpage on the Mountain Laurel to help understand how to take care of it.

From the Image Gallery

Texas mountain laurel
Sophora secundiflora
Texas mountain laurel
Sophora secundiflora
Texas mountain laurel
Sophora secundiflora

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Growing Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora) and Coral Bean (Erythrina herbacea) from Seed

Cynthia W. Mueller, Galveston County Master Gardener

Two of Texas’ most spectacular native plants, Texas Mountain Laurel and Coral Bean, are fairly easy to grow from seed, and difficult to transplant as they become larger and more entrenched in the landscape.

Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea

Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea, is a member of the Fabaceae, or pea family. In the spring over a long period spikes of red, elongated, narrow blooms several feet long adorn the low growing plants, whose leaflets are borne in threes. Later the showy scarlet beans in dark pods add further interest. They are often seen in pastures or waste places that are not mowed often, as they can survive the occasional loss of the upper growth. The beautiful modern hybrid, E. bidwelli, with its large clusters of striking red flowers, is a cross between E. herbacea and its close relative, E. crista-galli. In areas of Texas warm enough that the branches of the Coral Bean do not freeze every winter, they can grow to become actual trunks. The underground portion of the plant slowly increases in size till digging it up becomes a real project, which can include mistakenly bumping into the thorny parts.

Hummingbirds are attracted to the flowers, which appear over a long period of time.

Common English names for Coral Bean include: Cardinal Spear, Cherokee Bean and Red Cardinal-flower. Mexican and Indian names include: Colorin, Corolillo, Patol, Pitos, Chilicote, Zampantle, Zumpantle, Tzampantle, Tzan-pan-cuohuitl, Cozquelite, Purenchegua, Pureque, Tzinacanquahuitl, Chijol, Chocolin, Pichoco, Jiquimite, Iguimite, Peonia, Chotza, Demthy, and Macayxtli, according to Robert Vines (Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines of the Southwest).

In Mexico the seeds have traditionally been used to poison rats and dogs, and to stun fish. The alkaloid erythroidine is found in all Erythrinas and has an effect similar to curare. The wood is carved into various small objects in Mexico, and the plants used as hedges or garden ornaments.

If not raised from seed, Erythrina can be grown from cuttings or shoots from the old roots or division of the rootstock. It prefers sandy soil and is found in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, to North Carolina, and down to the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and San Luis Potosi.

However, seeds are the simplest way to increase stock, and will germinate quickly if treated or scarified. One method is to hold a bean with pliers in one hand and file through the outer layer with a three cornered file. Sandpaper may also be used. Seeds can also be nicked at the end with a single edge razor blade. After the seedcoat has been nicked, soak in water until the small “root” emerges. At this time, change the water daily. Some growers prefer pouring boiling water over the seeds in a shallow dish. The seeds should quickly swell and then germinate. If not, repeat the process.

When the plants have achieved some growth, plant them in a container, leaving several inches of space between plants. The containers may be rested underneath shrubs where there is some protection from too much sun. Bring in the young plants the first season at least, so that they do not freeze. Keep these on the dry side during the winter – water lightly once a week. Keep an eye out for snails and slugs. Return them to the outdoors when spring arrives and plant out into the landscape when large enough. It will be enjoyable to see the variations in flower color and size that may occur among the seedlings.

Texas Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora

Texas Mountain Laurel, (Sophora secundiflora) originally found in the Hill Country of Texas, is a small tree with evergreen, compound leaves that bears beautiful lavender-amethyst colored clusters of pea-like flowers smelling of “grape Koolaid” with bright red seeds in a semi-woody pod. It is also a member of the Fabaceae, or Pea family, and can be found in nature from Central Texas west to New Mexico, and south to San Luis Potosi in Mexico. It is native to dry, rocky limestone soils and is drought-resistant after establishment. It makes a beautiful specimen plant in the landscape.

Its common names in English include Mescal-bean sophora, hot bean, coral bean and big-drunk bean. Mexican and Indian names include: Frigolito, Frijollito, Frijolillo, and Colorin. Bees are very attracted to this plant, and there is still argument over whether or not a honey made entirely from the nectar of this tree is poisonous. The beans were well known to the native peoples to be useful to induce a form of drunkenness, delirium, hallucinations and sleep when taken in very small quantities. Eating too much of the bean is deadly. Livestock may also be poisoned by this plant. The beans are said to contain the alkaloid sophorine, which is identical with cytosine.

The seeds have an extremely hard red shell, and can take years to germinate after they fall from the tree. However, if the gardener will pick the green pods with beans that are still only pale pink in color (usually in the month of June) and sow a handful of them immediately in gallon or larger plastic containers, the seeds will usually sprout quickly and grow on until winter. Dr. Ed McWilliams, retired faculty member, Department of Horticulture, Texas A&M University, often said that the seeds could be planted as soon as the very first signs of color appeared. Some care must be taken to shelter the young plants through the first winter. Texas Mountain Laurel is not propagated from cuttings. When transplanting young plants, adding some extra calcium to the mix helps to get them established.

Return to HortUpdate – September 2011 Index

Scarification promotes fast growth in Texas mountain laurel seeds

Dear Neil: I have some Texas mountain laurel seeds. I’d like to start new plants, but someone told me they sprout really slowly. Are there any special tricks?

Answer: The seeds must be “scarified.” That refers to a mechanical process of breaking through the hard seed coat so water and oxygen can get to the embryo and encourage it to sprout and grow. Without scarification, Texas mountain laurel seeds may take 5 to 10 years to germinate. Scarified seeds should sprout within 2 or 3 weeks. To scarify the seeds individually, hold a seed gently within a pair of pliers in one hand, while you carefully use a three-cornered file to cut a groove through the outer red seed coat. You’ll see cream-colored tissue just inside, and that’s when you need to stop filing. Soak the seeds in water overnight, then plant them 1-inch deep into 4-inch pots filled with a good potting soil mix. They’ll sprout almost immediately, and by the end of their first year, they should be 8 or 10 inches tall.

Dear Neil: I have property in the Texas Hill Country where I planted two Brown Turkey figs from 5-gallon cans three years ago. The first year, we had several nice figs. Each winter since, the plants have frozen to the ground. They’ve come back strongly, but with no more figs. I have drip irrigation and they get sufficient water. What can I do to help them survive the winter?

A: The variety Celeste is the most cold-hardy fig that’s adapted to Texas. You might try one or two of them for comparison. There are a couple of figs that have the name Brown Turkey associated with them, including the other commonly recommended Texas Everbearing (a.k.a. Brown Turkey). Any fig is likely to be hurt by a very cold winter, especially in its first year or two, when its growth is still young and green. If you can get them through those first two or three winters without dieback, your odds improve greatly in successive winters. However, they’re still going to have problems occasionally, and there isn’t anything short of covering them (almost impractical) that will make much difference. Avoid nitrogen fertilizers near them, especially in the fall. Strongly vegetative growth that follows applications of nitrogen will increase their vulnerability to cold damage. Prune only as needed to remove damaged, dead or really erratic growth. Other than that, there isn’t much you can do.

Dear Neil: I have a large bed of old iris that I’d like to share with friends. When can I dig them out and divide them? We’re actually thinking about replacing them with shrubs.

A: The ideal time to dig and divide iris is early October. That’s also a great time to plant new shrubs, since it gives them many months to get reestablished before summer. However, if you need to move forward on your project, iris are pretty forgiving. Wait until the bloom stalks have all finished and the foliage has become somewhat mature, then dig them carefully and plant them immediately into pots. That will give them a chance to get reestablished before you give them as gifts. Water them thoroughly as soon as they’re potted.

Dear Neil: We have a really pretty globe willow. How long do they live, and how are they started?

A: Unlike most other shade trees, willows are started from cuttings. Most trees do not have the ability to form roots along severed pieces of stem tissues. The life expectancy of most willows in Texas, on average, is probably 6 or 7 years. That’s why you don’t see many nurserymen selling and planting them. But, they’re fast and inexpensive to start over, if their short lives don’t bother you.

Dear Neil: I had a nice bed of lamb’s ear last year. It was full of fuzzy leaves, and I was really happy with it. By mid-summer, however, it was weak and not very pretty. What can I do now to prevent that from happening again?

A: Lamb’s ear does better if it has a little protection from the afternoon sun in mid-summer. It tends to melt out in the heat. It also should be kept uniformly moist. When the plants wilt and dry, they typically drop a bunch of their bottom leaves. However, perhaps the biggest task of all is to keep flower spikes pinched off just as they begin to emerge. As with caladiums and coleus, lamb’s ear plants shut down production of new leaves when they are allowed to flower. The spikes, while modestly attractive, aren’t pretty enough to justify losing the good looks of the bed.

Dear Neil: Our rural landscape is surrounded by farms and ranches, and they are sprayed for grasshoppers. We do not spray on our 20 acres. How can we choose plants that will be resistant?

A: Almost no plant is immune to grasshoppers. Junipers and other conifers would have the best chance. But, I’ve seen them attack almost every other type of landscape and garden plant that we grow. They’re like young children — when they get hungry, they’ll eat almost anything. However, nurserymen and farm supply dealers do have products that will help you.

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia Latifolia) 50 seeds

Mountain laurel is a broadleaf evergreen shrub or small tree that produces beautiful, intricate flowers early in the season. It is a native of the mountainous regions of the eastern United States (from Florida to Maine) and favors the same growing environments as its close relatives, rhododendrons and blueberries, so acid soils are a must. It’s quite hardy and versatile in the landscape. There are many dwarf cultivars ideal for small garden spaces as well as taller forms appropriate for large planting areas.
The glossy dark green leaves of mountain laurel look great year-round. In late spring and summer it sets large, round clusters of small crimped flowerbuds. These open into chalice-shaped flowers with crimped edges. Each crimped edge holds a tiny stamen that releases and flips upward when pollinators enter the complex flowers. The blooms may be red, pale, pink, rose, maroon or white, and many bicolored cultivars are available. The clusters are along the tips of branches and create a very pretty effect.
Mountain laurel needs acid soil that is high in organic matter and well-drained. Partial sun to partial shade is ideal. Too much shade can result in a less uniform growth habit and reduced flowering. Prune lightly, if at all, as this plant is very slow to recover. Fungal leafspot is a common problem as is sunscald and leaf desiccation due to winter winds.
Mountain laurel looks at home in a large rockery or shrub border with rhododendrons. (info source: Learn2Grow.com)
Genus – Kalmia
Species – Latifolia
Common name – Mountain Laurel
Pre-Treatment – Required
Hardiness zones – 4 – 8
Height – 1.80-3 m
Spread – 2.40-3 m
Plant type – Shrub
Vegetation type – Evergreen
Exposure – Partial Sun, Partial Shade
Growth rate – Medium
Soil PH – Acidic, Neutral
Soil type – Clay, Loam, Sand, Well Drained
Water requirements – Average Water
Landscape uses – Alpine, Feature Plant, Foundation, Mixed Border, Rock Garden / Wall
Germination rate – 80%
Bloom season – Late Spring, Early Summer, Summer
Leaf / Flower color – Dark Green / Pink, Rose

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