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February 2010 cover image canoe on Bois d'Arc Creek

Flora Fact : Whiff of Grape

Fragrant mountain laurels are cousins to bluebonnets.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Bluebonnets may steal the show every spring, but a whole field of them can’t beat the sweet aroma of a single Texas mountain laurel in bloom. From late February into April, the purplish flower clusters of this native species perfume the air with the scent of grape soda, attracting scores of bees and butterflies, not to mention noses as well.

Sophora secundiflora occurs across southern, western and central Texas as an evergreen shrub or small tree with glossy green leaves. Though called a laurel, it’s not. For that matter, neither is the mountain laurel that’s native to eastern states; true laurels include sassafras, red bay and northern spicebush. Botanically speaking, Texas mountain laurels are members of the legume family, which make them kin to catclaw, mesquites, redbuds and — surprise! — bluebonnets.

Mescal-bean — another common (and perhaps more accurate) name for Sophora secundiflora — refers to the dubious attributes of its bright red seeds. Through trial and probably many deadly errors, Native Americans learned how to use them to make intoxicating beverages. (Caution: The beans, foliage and flowers are highly toxic to humans and animals.) They also prized the hard beans for trade items and jewelry making. To this day, artists still craft necklaces and bracelets from mescal beans.

Texas mountain laurels rarely survive being transplanted from the wild, but you may be able to germinate them from seeds. Gather some dry seedpods and plant them in the fall. Or remove the beans (soak the pods in warm water for easier removal), scarify with a file or knife, then bag and store them in a cool, dry place; plant the beans in the spring. Sophora secundiflora grows slowly, so don’t expect to smell grape soda for a few years.

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