Virtues: An underused small- to medium-size native tree with year-round interest created by its spring flowers, great summer texture, showy fall foliage and it gray bark and pleasant form apparent in winter. Its deep roots do not rob water from shrubs and perennials growing beneath it. Tolerant of less-than-its-ideal conditions. Great tree for lawns, patio areas, small gardens or planted in groups in larger gardens and properties.
Common name: American yellowwood, Kentucky yellowwood, gopherwood. “Yellowwood” comes from the color of its heartwood.
Botanical name: Cladrastis kentukea, synonyms C. kentuckea, C. lutea
Foliage: Deciduous medium green 12-inch compound leaves composed of several 4-inch-long oval leaflets. Fall color is clear yellow.
Flowers: Fragrant white flowers appear in drooping clusters in late spring. They look very much like wisteria flowers. A heavy bloom occurs every few years. Brown fall seed pods contrast well with fall foliage. ‘Rosea’, also called ‘Perkin’s Pink’, is a pink-flowered form.
Habit: Deciduous tree 30 to 50 feet tall and wide, with a rounded crown. The crown arises from a group of limbs originating low on the main trunk, lending the tree an overall wide vase shape. As the tree matures it can sometimes split at the crotch of these limbs.
Season: Spring for flowers, fall for yellow foliage. Shade tree spring through fall. Smooth gray bark is attractive in winter.
Origin: Woods, river valleys and limestone slopes of the Southeast and lower Midwest United States. Populations are spotty.
Cultivation: Grow in full sun to part shade and moist but well-drained soil. It prefers alkaline soil but will tolerate acidic soil. Tolerates drought once established. Prune in the summer (if necessary) because it can heavily bleed sap. Removing several leaders (main limbs) from the tree while it is young guards against it splitting later in life. USDA Zones 5–8.
Fall foliage image source
Compound leaf image source
Flower and tree images courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder
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