By Jim Leser
This week I decided to start an on again off again series on landscape plants I really like. The first one to feature is the curl leaf mountain mahogany, cercocarpus ledifolius. It is not a true mahogany. The common name derives from the dense, heavy wood of this tree, which sinks in water. This evergreen plant can be trained as a tree or a shrub.
This small, native broadleaf evergreen retains each set of leaves for two years, growing a new set to replace the shed ones every year. It is one of the few evergreen plants that aren’t spruces or pines. Sometimes we need something different to fill a space that we want to have year-round screening without being a pine, spruce, fir or juniper.
With the exception of some junipers, most conifers grow into a fairly tall, robust tree. But what if you want a smaller stature tree that is evergreen and not a deciduous tree like the smaller hawthorns and crabapples? Well the curl leaf mountain mahogany will fit that bill perfectly. It offers an interesting winter contrast to the standard landscape conifer. It grows 3 to 15 feet tall as a large shrub but more often is trained into a medium stature, multiple trunk tree.
Curl leaf mountain mahogany is fairly common in the Colorado National Monument. It grows in a very xeric environment, able to withstand drought conditions. It requires about 7 to 10 inches of moisture a year to grow 4 to 6 inches of new growth a year. It can take more water if faster growth is desired. Just don’t overwater. It doesn’t like wet feet.
This specimen plant is in the rose family with small inconspicuous whitish-yellow flowers appearing in May. Flowers may be small but they are quite numerous and attractive, especially to native bee and fly pollinators. Fruits are tiny but are interesting because of the long, feathery, slender tails that twist the seed into the ground.
I would use curl leaf mountain mahogany as a screen or an accent plant. It could also be espalier against a bare wall. It is a tidy, interesting, clean plant with minimal leaf litter. It does very well in hot, dry areas of the landscape. Don’t plant them in the shade. When first planted they should be watered every two weeks. After that, once a month watering is sufficient in the second and third year. But then only water every two to three months.
Native Americans used this tree’s wood for small, handmade items such as bows, spearheads and special sticks for extricating subterranean foods. Native people also used the tree medicinally, especially the bark, in the treatment of various ills. Part of the bark is boiled with Ephedra to give the tea a pleasing taste; Cercocarpus bark tea is also used for treating colds, as well as for making a rose-colored dye. It is good forage for browsing animals which can be a problem in areas with a resident deer population. That is why my trees are caged.
I like this tree a lot and have in fact planted four in my landscape as either specimens, trained as multi-trunk trees or as a midlevel screen from my neighbor to the north. I don’t know how many plant nurseries carry this native plant. I got mine from Chelsea Nursery (chelseanursery.com/) in Clifton, 12 years ago.
In my May 13 DCI column on “murder hornets,” I inadvertently stated that Cicada Killer wasps attack tarantulas to feed their young. Obviously, Tarantula Hawk wasps attack tarantulas and other larger spiders to feed their young while Cicada Killer wasps attack cicadas for their young’s food. Sorry for the mix-up.
Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Colorado Master Gardener.