It’s Time for the Jacaranda’s Purple Reign

Tuesday June 22, 2004

We’ve almost missed the jacaranda show in Berkeley, especially with a few recent windy days that knocked down a lot of flowers. We have only a token representation of the species anyway, with a short row on Gilman a few blocks east of Westbrae Nursery, a few scattered on other streets and in private yards. They’re hard to miss right now; just look for a mass of grape-sherbet color. 

What we have is a sort of minor delegation from more tropical places. Jacarandas are originally from Argentina and Brazil, but they’ve been spread all over the world as street trees. Cities that have the right climate sometimes plant jacaranda in great masses. If you’ve ever driven on the 210 through the hills above Los Angeles in late May or early June, you might have seen the dazzling, Disney effect those plantings have. The amorphous pale purple masses floating above the smog-smudged streets below look a bit cartoony, inked from an entirely different palette. 

Other places, in Mediterranean and more tropical climates, make an even bigger deal of their jacarandas. Pretoria, South Africa calls itself the “Jacaranda City,” and Grafton in New South Wales, Australia has a Jacaranda Festival starting in late October every year, just for example. I hear Addis Ababa is full of them, like sever other big African cities. 

They have a few problems as street trees: They like good drainage (which they don’t get here) and tend to grow brittle branches that are relatively thick compared to their trunks, and tend to break. A homeowner with a jacaranda might want to keep it pruned to a lacy canopy, to let the wind pass through. Their biggest problem here is the occasional freeze, which kills them back partially and makes them look sickly for a year or two afterwards. 

Our species is the best known one for landscaping: Jacaranda mimosifolia. The leaves do look like a mimosa’s, all ferny and feathery and compound. Most of them drop off in late winter or early spring, and the tree re-leafs after it has started flowering. With the right sequence of weather and conditions, you can briefly get a spectacular all-lavender tree. 

Jacarandas have a few cousins in Berkeley, fellow members of the family Bignoniaceae. There are a couple of pawlonias and catalpas—both trees with spectacular, upright pale-purple flower clusters. Catalpas—called “Indian cigar trees” for their long dangling fruit—are ambassadors, too, from the southeastern US. I spent early May in Arkansas, and had to pull off the road several times to enjoy a huge, stately, ladylike catalpa in bloom. Like that of jacarandas, catalpas’ flowers are a translucent, unearthy (if not quite unearthly) lavender, showy against the deep-green heart-shaped leaves. Unlike jacarandas’, they’re intensely fragrant. In their home range, they host sphinx moth caterpillars called catalpa or catawba worms. This is a vice and a virtue: The “worms” are pretty showy themselves, more than the cryptic brown adults. They’re marked in various patterns of black and white, grow to nearly four inches long—and have a habit of dropping into your lemonade or down your collar. On the other hook, they make great fishbait, and some folks grow catalpas just for that. 

Showy seems to be a theme in this family. Another couple of cousins found around town are the red trumpetvines, both the big, woody Distictis buccinatoria (the one in Trumpetvine Court) and the more refined, locally less common Campsis radicans. I’ve actually seen the latter sheared into a hedge—interesting effect with the finely dissected leaves, though a lot of the flowers were lost. You won’t be surprised to hear that hummingbirds love them both. 

Of course, there has to be a drawback to jacaranda. People who park under them find out one problem, when the leaves fall: They can be sticky and hard to remove. The fallen flowers keep their color and look like so much confetti, but there are some situations like poolsides where that might be resented. And, like many easy and popular landscape plants, they’re invasive in parts of Hawaii, Africa, and Australia, usually via windblown seeds. I wonder if catalpa worms would like jacaranda leaves. As biocontrol goes, they’d be pretty spectacular themselves.›