The Yellow-flowering Retama Is a Symbol of Early Summer
by Ro Wauer
The fragrant and bright yellow flowers of our native retama have begun to bloom, another symbol of late spring or early summer in South Texas. This lovely little tree, with its thorny, green bark, can grow to 35 feet. Its drooping foliage, rounded crown, and compound leaves (tiny leaflets on a long flat stem) also help with identification. And by late summer, light brown to reddish, narrow pods, 2 to 4 inches long, appear.
Our ratama, known to scientists as Parkinsonia aculeate, occurs in Texas from the Gulf Coast west to El Paso, mostly in moist areas. A closely related tree known as Texas paloverde, or Cercidium texanum, occurs from Del Rio west along the Rio Grande to El Paso and westward through Arizona. Texas paloverde has smaller pods and a shorter flower stem than retama. The two flowering trees look very much alike. In Mexico they collectively are known as “palo verde” (Spanish for “green stick”), due to their green bark. Also in Mexico, the two trees are often called “lluvia de oro,” meaning “shower of gold.”
Both trees are members of the pea or legume family that comprise over 500 genera and more than 10,000 species in all parts of the world. Retamas prefer moist sites and often are common in riverbeds and at springs. In the Texas Big Bend country, the presence of a retama can be an indicator of water.
Because of their attractive appearance, retamas often are used for landscaping. Ornamentals rarely grow more than 20 feet in height. Also due to its all around attractiveness, retama has been named the city tree of Corpus Christi. Flowering plants also make good bee-trees, due to their sweet, nectar-laden flowers. Hummingbirds are attracted as well, and in Mexico it is a larval foodplant for a little green hairstreak butterfly, Clench’s greenstreak.
Paul Cox and Patti Leslie, in their book, “Texas Trees: A Friendly Guide,” point out that “livestock browse the foliage and branches during hard time. Bees are attracted to the flowers, and the pods are sought after as food by deer and other animals. In earlier times the pods were pounded and made into course flour by Indians. In Mexico a tea brewed from the branches and leaves is used in the treatment of diabetes and as a fever remedy.”
Whether the retama is a wild tree growing along the riverbeds or is maintained in our gardens, it is among our loveliest and most cherished plants.