Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Soapberry Paradise

The Western Soapberry tree (Sapindus saponaria var. drumonddi, or just plain Sapindus drummondii) is a southern plains beastie who promises to improve the world of small dry-growing street trees.  Only a few are familiar with this charming plant, and even fewer are actually using it.  And it is done.
I first met this plant as a kid on my bike; the transparent plastic-like dried seed capsules ("fruit") looked liek so many independently solar-powered Christmas lights.  I stuffed my pockets with these seeds, which would mix with my marbles and jacks as playthings.

Nothing's changed, really.  Last October, my dear friend Sonia and I went to Oklahoma to visit a grand gentleman who grows and utilises it very well in domestic plantings.  Steve Bieberich of Sunshine Nursery  (Clinton, OK) is perhaps one of the finest and humblest plantsmen/nurserymen I've met. (I've met a few...) He grows potted landscape trees a year faster than your average bear, but holds onto them to have a year-older root system, which dramatically increases the success rate of his plants in general.  What a guy. (Pictured above, right, admiring a "Gum Bumelia" or "Chittamwood": Sideroxylon lanuginosum)

We also swung through the South-East corner of Colorado where the trees natural range just pokes into our fine state, just in tiem to see the canyon-bottom dwelling Soapberries turning yellow.  ("Near" Kim, Colorado, USA)  


 It feels like a good omen to pass through a town that is your name.  I felt a wierd sense of proprietorship for the funny little place.

In cultivatoin, it is a fine shapely thing.  Round.  Nice, eh?  Maybe 20 feet tall at absolute maximum.  Small leaflets are easy to clean up or ignore in fall.  The decorative fruit are not pavement-greasing things like crabapples, but stay on the tree, so there are always golden orbs to be enjoyed in low lighting.

IMPORTANT FACTS are these:  as a nursery subject, it does not like overwatering.  This sensitivity is not extreme, but it is important.  Young plants are tender (many call this plant a zone 7 ot 8, where a healthy plant is probably really a zone 6).  Denver Botanic Gardens has one, and there is a naturalising group of them in Clifton, Colorado.  I have watched the above tree survive (with no ill effects) having been unwatered for years  (Clifton, CO: 8 inches of annual precip.) when the property was either empty or rented.

 LAST IMPORTANT FACT:  This plant grows a little (not a lot) slowly as a sapling (for nursery-growing reference) and is not "traditional," and has thus avoided widespread use as a wonderful dry-growing street tree.  Let's stop ignoring it and try it out.


Acantholimon said...

I thought the big soapberries near Palisade were the Chinese species? Our native S. drummondii is so much smaller...

What a great post...are you related to the panhandle town? I wondered that...

Bieberich is a prince! More pix of Clinton! Have you seen the Sapindus at DBG? Terribly tricky to grow in pots we find...

ineedacupoftea said...

Thanks for making me wonder!
I shall have a closer look to be absolutely sure, but I have been assuming they were S. saponaria var. drumondii due to size of leaflets, fruit, and that nicely furrowed bark. The Clifton plants are under 20ft. (The penultimate picture includes a stomach-high fence, for reference) From the fruit of S. mukorossii I've seen in healthfood stores sold as garnishes on hippie soaps, their fruit are much larger and smoother when dry, but it would be awesome if I were wrong; I'll let you know when I can find some confirming traits.
(Harrington says that S. s. drummondii has a terminal leaflet- I've never seen this to be true, ever! Even in this illustration: http://luirig.altervista.org/cpm/albums/britton-brown-6/britt-3912-sapindus-saponaria-var_-drummondii.jpg )

Do you know if anyone has tried S. mukorossii one, or if it grows in cold enough places in the Himalaya to be worth a try here?

It was your glowing reviews of Bieberich that piqued us. We were too dang distracted that neither of us took many pictures in Clinton; can you believe it!? Perhaps it is a spell that protects the sacred from graven images.

David Cristiani said...

Cool post on a cooler, more deserving tree than ashes, cottonwoods, birch, etc. I think like many species, it just needs to be used and used well (with ample room to show off), all over, and not explained (so you don't get shot down with "but is that hardy?"), Much potential.

Aaron said...

I like soap berries, how hardy are they?