Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
April, 2004
Regional Report

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Hybrid palo verde 'Desert Museum' puts on a show of bright yellow bloom.

Palo Verde Trees

Many desert-adapted trees generate glorious clouds of color when in bloom. My favorites, the palo verdes (Cercidium spp.) are finishing up their spring bloom now, dropping a skirt of spent yellow blossoms at their feet. It provides the satisfying equivalent of scuffling through autumn leaves.

Palo verde translates as "green stick" in Spanish, a descriptive reference to the tree's green bark tissue. The smooth green bark is often commented on by desert newcomers who are accustomed to trees with rough, brown or gray bark. Like many desert trees, palo verdes develop a multi-trunked growth pattern that produces a graceful structure and splendid shade canopy.

Palo verde are water-thrify trees in desert landscapes. They require very little water and have developed a mechanism to deal with extended periods of drought by dropping leaves, twigs, and even small branches. The chlorophyll in their green bark allows them to continue photosynthesizing without foliage. Nifty trick!

Blue palo verde (C. floridum) is the largest species, growing 30 feet by 30 feet, with a bluish green bark color. To my eyes, it creates the most vivid blast of yellow flowers. Littleleaf or foothills palo verde (C. microphyllum) works better for small yards, growing 15 feet by 15 feet. It blooms later in spring than blue palo verde with less intense color. Palo brea (C. praecox) has a lime-green cast to its trunk. It grows to 25 by 25, with an attractive umbrella-shaped canopy. All are hardy to 15 degrees F, except palo brea which is only hardy to 25 degrees.

Landscape Uses
These trees require no fertilizer and provide great habitat for nesting birds, including hummingbirds. Lower limbs need to be trimmed up gradually over a period of years to produce a canopy that can be walked under. However, they do have thorns so they should be placed where they won't be in the way of frequent foot traffic. There is a thornless hybrid (C. 'Desert Museum') that is a fast grower to 25 feet by 25 feet.

Note: Taxonomists recently reclassified Cercidium to Parkinsonia, but the trees are still labeled in nurseries and public gardens as Cercidium.

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