Friday, September 20, 2013

Palo verde quest ends in success

A few weeks ago we cut down a purple-leaf cherry plum tree (Prunus cerasifera ‘Krauter Vesuvius’) in the front yard because it had gotten to be too messy. Initially I had considered replacing it with a blue jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) but after further research I decided against it: As beautiful as the blue jacaranda is, it, too, has a reputation for being messy, always dropping something.

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I briefly considered a purple fernleaf acacia (Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’) because of its sexy first-purple-then-silver leaves and its bright yellow flowers but some people say its branches become weak over time and break.

Finally it occurred to me that this spot would actually be ideal for one of my favorite trees of all: a palo verde (Parkisonsia sp.). To me, the palo verde (Spanish for “green stick”) is the quintessential desert tree. Its green bark capable of photosynthesis and its tiny leaves optimized to prevent evaporation show how perfectly adapted it is to arid climates.

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Palo verde species in front of a motel in Needles, CA
(the “shrub” in the foreground is an ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens)

In the Sonora desert, the palo verde not only provides habitat for birds, it’s a nurse tree for saguaros, sheltering the young cacti from the intense sun in the summer and the cold in the winter. Obviously these facts don’t matter much in our case—the Sacramento Valley is famously devoid of saguaros—but they’re still cool to know.

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Palo verde species at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.
Who knows, it may even be the ‘Desert Museum’ hybrid!

There are four species of palo verde: Mexican palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata), blue palo verde (Parkisonia florida), foothill palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla), palo brea (Parkinsonia praecox), and the lesser known Texas palo verde (Parkinsonia texana). This article gives a good overview of the various varieties. (To clear up some taxonomical confusion, palo verdes used to be in the genus Cercidium, which has now been subsumed into the larger genus Parkinsonia. However, most nurseries still sell palo verdes as Cercidium.)

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Mexican palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata) at the Ruth Bancroft Garden

Each of these species has its unique advantages and disadvantages so choosing the perfect one was going to be difficult. Then I stumbled upon what would become my holy grail: a naturally occurring palo verde hybrid called ‘Desert Museum’. This cross between the Mexican palo verde (Parkinsonia aculeata), the blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida), and the foothill palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla) was discovered over 30 years ago by Mark Dimmitt, the directory of natural history at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. (Read this article to find out more about the history of the ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde.)

The ‘Desert Museum’ hybrid grows to a very manageable 20-25 ft. and combines the best qualities of each of its parents:

  • It is cold hardy to 15°F.
  • It is a fast grower given enough heat (5-6 ft. per year in the ground).
  • It is very drought-tolerant although deep watering in the summer (every two weeks or so) helps it grow faster.
  • It has larger and brighter flowers.
  • It flowers for a longer period of time (four or five weeks in the spring) and often blooms again in the summer.
  • It is thornless.
  • Its trunk is a deeper green.
  • It can handle clay soils as long as its roots aren’t waterlogged for extended periods of time.

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Palo verde as part of a low-water landscaping scheme in Davis

After reading many glowing reviews about ‘Desert Museum’, I decided that it would be the ideal replacement for our cherry plum; my wife agreed whole-heartedly. It felt good to have come to a decision. The most difficult part—the selection process—was now over and the rest was going to be smooth sailing.

Wrong.

It quickly became clear that deciding on a tree is one thing, finding a specimen is another. I first contacted a small family-owned nursery here in Davis, Redwood Barn Nursery. The owner, Don Shor, is a well-known plant expert with a wealth of knowledge. He assured me that palo verdes grow great in our area but unfortunately they are a hard sell (probably because most homeowners are not familiar with them) and none of his suppliers carry them.

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Palo verde at Maria’s Cantina in Woodland, 15 miles north of Davis

I then tried Green Acres in Sacramento, the largest retail nursery in the Sacramento Valley. Since they carry Monrovia products and Monrovia has the ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde in their catalog, I was hopeful they might be able to special-order one for me. Unfortunately, the person in charge of ordering never responded to my attempts to reach her (I even left her a note during a personal visit to the nursery).

Calls to other nurseries in our area didn’t go anywhere. None of them carried any variety of palo verde, let alone the one I wanted, and none was able to special-order one.

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Palo verde flowers

A web search led me to the Lowe’s web site which lists both the blue palo verde and the ‘Desert Museum’ hybrid. I was thrilled: $37.66 for a 10¼-gallon plant! I called three Lowe’s stores in the area; two were not responsive but the nursery manager at one store told me that this tree would have to be special-ordered from a specific supplier and that they wouldn’t be able to place an order until a certain minimum was reached, which wasn’t likely for many months to come. I do understand the economics, but it’s still extremely frustrating because I bet that just about any Lowe’s store in Phoenix or Tucson has the ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde in stock.

At this point I decided to expand my search to wholesale growers which have ‘Desert Museum’ in their inventory in hopes of getting a referral to a retail nursery that would be willing to place a special order.

Boething Treeland Farms referred me to Green Acres (see above) and to Home Depot. I decided not to follow up on the Home Depot lead, figuring their policy would be the same as Lowe’s.

Village Nurseries, one of the largest plant growers in California, was next. In addition to growing grounds in Northern and Southern California, they also operate five landscape centers (including one in Sacramento) aimed at landscape contractors and other bulk plant buyers. When their rep returned my call, I was mentally prepared for more disappointment. Imagine my surprise when Jeanie, the wonderful lady I spoke with, not only knew what the ‘Desert Museum’ palo verde was (she loves it) but cheerfully told me that they would be happy to have one shipped from their Southern California growing grounds to their Sacramento location. I was so thrilled, I ordered two, one to replace the cherry plum and one to go on the other side of the front yard (it’ll replace the weaver’s bamboo that is too large for its spot). The price: a still reasonable $63.99 for a 15-gallon can.

My two palo verdes are scheduled to arrive in Sacramento tomorrow and will be ready for pickup on Monday. Please keep your fingers crossed that they will actually be there waiting for me!

Saga continued here.

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24 comments:

  1. What a saga! I can't wait to see the trees planted! (Especially since I know that getting that bamboo out is not going to be easy.)

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    1. We started the bamboo removal this morning. Cut down all the culms. Three huge piles for Monday's yard waste pickup.

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  2. If they balk at selling them to you because you don't have a retail license, let me know, I may be able to dig someone up for you who could get it for you from them. sue

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    1. I told them I was a homeowner, not a landscape professional. It didn't seem to matter. Maybe anybody can shop there. I'll find out soon enough. But thank you for your offer. Hopefully I won't need a retail license.

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  3. What a story! And yes it WILL have a happy ending, I just know it.

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  4. What a saga indeed! Crossing our fingers for you but I'm sure it will be there :)

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  5. What a cool tree! I've never seen anything like it.

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    1. I still remember seeing my first palo verde 25 years ago. It was love at first sight.

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  6. That is a really beautiful tree. If I was to have a tree that would be it. I know it will look great!

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    1. Candy, it would look stunning in your yard! Few trees go with succulents as well as palo verdes do.

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  7. Thank you for this great info! We just ordered a palo verde "desert museum" based in large part on your recommendation (we're in Sacramento.) Village Nursery seemed happy to order it for us, didn't ask if we were homeowners or not, gave us a choice of two sizes, and told us it would get here in a week! Many thanks!

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    1. That's fantastic! Sacramento needs more palo verdes--a lot more, LOL!

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    2. Thanks, Gerhard! It's still in its container...as soon as we figure out where to plant it, we will! :-)

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    3. I forgot to say, they are open to the public on weekends!

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  8. Hey Gerhard, I was thinking of putting in a Palo Verde "Desert Museum" here in southern california. I did some research on it and found out that during the flower blooming it has a tendency to shed tons of yellow flowers. Though beautiful, the flowers create a lot of litter and a huge mess according to a few owners of Palo verde DMs I spoke to. One owner said "it produces 2 inches of flowers on occasion and will grow massive if given enough water"

    Isn't this similar to the Jacaranda which sheds tons of flowers? Anyways please let me know or please put up an update, as I would love to see how your Desert Museum is doing.

    Thanks

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    1. I read that, too. I don't have any personal experience to share because my palo verdes haven't bloomed yet. However, the flowers are so small and light that I imagine even the slightest breeze would blow them away. Jacaranda flowers are much larger.

      I wouldn't call palo verdes massive. Most sources give an average of 20x20 ft (height x width) for the 'Desert Museum' hybrid. That's nothing compared to many shade trees typically grown in residential areas. For me, the 'Desert Museum' is just the right size.

      I'll post an update on my own palo verdes soon. Right now they're leaving out. They lost their leaves because I didn't water them much during our super dry winter. (Heck, who would have thought we'd have to go so long without rain!)

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  9. Hey Gerhard, I was thinking of putting in a Palo Verde "Desert Museum" here in southern california. I did some research on it and found out that during the flower blooming it has a tendency to shed tons of yellow flowers. Though beautiful, the flowers create a lot of litter and a huge mess according to a few owners of Palo verde DMs I spoke to. One owner said "it produces 2 inches of flowers on occasion and will grow massive if given enough water"

    Isn't this similar to the Jacaranda which sheds tons of flowers? Anyways please let me know or please put up an update, as I would love to see how your Desert Museum is doing.

    Thanks

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    1. Please see this update (June 2015).

      Most of the petals blow away. The ones that do remain are easy to sweep up.

      I would disagree with the statement that 'Desert Museum' produces a "huge mess." Compared to a regular street tree that sheds its leaves in the fall, it's nothing.

      Also, "massive" is not a word I would apply to 'Desert Museum'. Our neighbors sycamore is massive; our 'DM' is a baby compared to that.

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  10. Would this tree grow in a coastal environment (Santa Monica)? Or is strictly a desert tree?

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    1. I think palo verdes would grow in Santa Monica but they need heat to really thrive. If you're inland a little ways, even just a few miles, you should be OK. Right on the ocean, I'd say no. I hope this helps.

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  11. I am debating between the Desert Museum and a Yellow Tabebuia Tree. I live in Roseville, Ca. Did you ever consider the Tabebuia? tbuell@calstrs.com

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    1. To be honest, I'd never even heard of that tree. But I did a quick search and it doesn't seem to be hardy in our area. Also, it's prone to wind damage and reseeds: http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/go/2559/#b. But it's very beautiful.

      I've been very happy with our 'Desert Museum'. They're vigorous growers and in spite of what others have said, I still maintain they're one of the cleanest trees you can have.

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