The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Flowering Huisache Trees Are Early This Year
by Ro Wauer

One more indication of an early spring is the early flowering of the huisache trees. Already these little acacia trees are blooming in deep South Texas. Their sweet aroma is beginning to permeate some areas. Unless we in the Gulf Coastal area get some colder temperatures, we should expect that our area will soon follow suit. For those of us that appreciate these little aromatic trees, it is a thing to look forward to each year. But for some other folks, especially those landowners that already have trouble clearing their land for browse, huisache trees are only a pain. They are one of earliest invaders, and they seldom are utilized by cattle.

On the other hand, landscapes filled with flowering huisache trees are truly impressive. They seem to bright up the fields and pastures earlier than any of our other native trees. And because they bloom in such abundance all at once, with their blooms lasting for several weeks, they can literally dominate the area with their sweet aroma. It is, in fact, that marvelous aroma that appealed to some of the historic visitors to Texas. Texas huisache trees were introduced to Europe in the 17th Century, and cultivated trees were utilized in France as the base for Grasse perfumes.

Huisache plantations were established for cassie, as it is known in France, and a local strain that produces two 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 "wee-sach" or "wee satch-eh," is a small tree or a 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 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 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 an astringent and the roots were made used 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 the greatest joys of spring. They are marvelous harbingers of the new, fresh season.


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