Huisache Trees are Blooming!
By Ro Wauer
The widespread blooming of the little huisache trees is one of our best indicators of spring. Its deep rich yellow flowers - spherical heads about 2/3-inch across on 1- to 1 1/2-inch stalks - are beautiful and aromatic spring heralds. They are especially noticeable because, rather than putting on a few scattered flowers that could easily be missed, hundreds of flowers usually bloom at once. An incredible show! And the bright yellow glow may last for several days or even weeks.
Huisache trees rarely occur alone but usually are found in numbers, all the better to brighten the landscape. They seem to prefer depressions, such as old stock tanks or resacas, places that hold water at least during parts of the year. They also appear on land that has been recently cleared, providing early vegetation that helps to limit erosion. But ranchers who want to clear areas for grazing or agriculture often dislike these early successional species.
The fast growing huisache trees can produce flowers in their second or third year. And if a patch of bright yellow trees isn't enough to attract one's attention, their strong scent may also help. This almost overwhelming aroma has given the huisache trees one of its common names of "sweet acacia." It is their aroma that has made them world-famous. In fact, it was highly prized in European gardens long before the first Texians reached their adopted country. As early as 1611, Cardinal Odoardo Farnese was cultivating huisache plants for their aroma. It was Farnese who arranged for publication of his botanical treasures in 1625, in which the little American tree was described as Acacia Farnesiana, after the cardinal. More recently most botanists have begun to use the scientific name of Acacia smallii.
Later in the seventeenth century the tree was introduced into France, where the flowers were utilized as a base for Grasse perfumes. Huisache plantations were established for "cassie," as it is known in France, and a local strain that produces two flower crops each year was developed. The odor is extracted from the flower oils and concocted into a pomade which goes into extracts of violet and aromatic vinegar to produce a very concentrated material known as "quintessence of cassie." It is one of the most costly of all scents.
Huisache, pronounced "we-sach" or "wee satch-eh," is a small tree or large shrub, rarely more than 25 feet tall, with a spreading rounded or flattened crown. However, the national champion huisache, near Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park, measures 48 feet tall with a 60-foot crown spread and a 6.1-foot girth. Like all the other legumes (members of the pea family), huisache trees sport sharp spines; they are paired, straight, 1-3 inches long, and appear at the base of each leaf. Also like most other peas or legumes, woody pods appear in summer or early fall.
The dark brown to black pods are 1-2 inches long and contain two rows of shiny, hard, gray seeds. Unlike mesquite pods, they are rarely utilized for food. However, according to Paul Cox and Patty Leslie in "Texas Trees: A Friendly Guide," the "pods were formerly made into ink, the juice was used as a glue for mending pottery, and the bark for drying skins." What's more, "decoctions from the green fruit serve as a astringent and the roots were crushed as a treatment for tuberculosis. Wound dressings were made from the crushed leaves, and the flowers were used as an infusion for ingestion and as an ointment for curing headaches."
Today our lovely huisache trees, rarely used at home for their assortment of benefits, but so well known elsewhere in the world, are among our best indicators of spring.