At the sight of the cloud of purple blooms adorning the front of my apartment the other day, I stopped dead.
“Oh, no. Oh no no no no. Not now. Not yet.” Passers-by slowed, then stopped to gawk at the crazy woman grieving over a beautiful tree, but I was far too distraught to pay them any mind. Desperate, I cast my eyes around for a second opinion, but at each glance of unwanted beauty my heart sank farther. Saguaro blossoms held sway over hoards of bees. Mesquite flowers shyly unveiled their first blossoms. And, most telling of all, golden Palo Verde blooms float in gossamer clouds above the sidewalk.
There is no denying it. The double edged swords of spring have arrived.
Every year, before the unforgiving heat of summer stampedes over us, plants put out a final Hail Mary profusion of blooms to entice pollinators. Spring flowers dig in their roots and hang on just a little longer. Then in saunters the late spring bloomers with the seductive promise of a gorgeous woman with a dangerous secret: marvel at the beauty but beware of the trouble trailing behind. Inevitably their arrival heralds more heartbreak. Ready or not, summer heat is coming. Might as well just embrace the floral shows that precede it. So, for the first of my series of southwest plant recommendations, I chose one of these double-edged swords of spring: the Palo Verde tree.
Even in an environment that twists and shapes its plant life into otherworldly sculptures, the palo verde tree, with its olive trunk and buttery flowers, stands out. The distinctive green limbs are more than an accessory. The palo verde tree has chlorophyll in its bark which allows it to drop its leaves during the hottest months and breathe through its trunk and branches.
Don’t let the thought of a bald tree scare you, though. Since another way that the Palo Verde trees conserve water is by having very small leaves, the general effect is of a haze of green rising above the ground. Often, it is difficult to tell if a palo verde tree has dropped its leaves until you are a hands length away.
Gardenwise, the Palo Verde is a very well-behaved tree. It tends to have a very small footprint; most of the ones I see out and about are around 15 feet (although they can grow up to 30 feet).The breathtaking sight of a line of Palo Verde trees in full bloom combined with small size make it the perfect plant to line driveways or fences for a mass effect.
After the bloom is over, yellow flowers rain down and cover the ground below, making a gorgeous vignette. Green seed pods follow the blooms and are eagerly devoured by wildlife. Gardening is one of the only places where it is good to litter. Leaf litter enriches the soil, helps it retain moisture, and suppresses weeds. Even as the tree drops its flowers and pods, the ground eagerly reaches out and absorbs it. Songbirds nest and sing from their boughs. Quails roost and forage in their branches and rabbits and other wildlife devour their seedpods.
The Palo Verde makes an excellent nurse tree for the plants that flinch from the unrelenting sun of the Sonoran Desert.
Because of its airy nature, the ground underneath it is more “dappled sunshine” as opposed to the “heavy shade” of say, a mesquite. This allows flowering plants underneath it to get the sun they need to bloom while getting a much needed break from the heat.
“This reminds me of the cherry blossoms in Washington,” my youngest sister says the first time she sees the Palo Verde tree in full bloom.
“While I was senate page. All of a sudden cherry trees were in bloom all over the town and for a while it seemed like the whole city was covered in pink.
“Really.” I have never imagined Washington, D.C. as a particularly natural place. In my mind it is a city of white houses, statues, and asphalt, with the faint soundtrack of schoolhouse rock’s “How a Bill becomes a Law” in the background. I say as much.
“Yes, really.” I can feel her eye roll without looking. There is a shiver of wind and flowers rustle upward with an agitated murmur. For a moment the world is lost in a golden haze and her words echo in the fresh-hay scent of dried flowers.
“Hmm.” I say again. Sitting on a nearby rock, I stare up into the dizzying spectacle of green and yellow above me.
This is how summer comes to the desert.
Nature stands. Unfurles the blanket of spring from the earth, shakes it, and settles it over us as summer. And in that paused moment where the blanket hangs suspended-neither spring nor summer-Palo Verde trees bloom in rivers of gold.