Growing Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora) and Coral Bean (Erythrina herbacea) from Seed

Cynthia W. Mueller, Galveston County Master Gardener

Two of Texas' most spectacular native plants, Texas Mountain Laurel and Coral Bean, are fairly easy to grow from seed, and difficult to transplant as they become larger and more entrenched in the landscape.

Coral Bean
Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea

Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea, is a member of the Fabaceae, or pea family. In the spring over a long period spikes of red, elongated, narrow blooms several feet long adorn the low growing plants, whose leaflets are borne in threes. Later the showy scarlet beans in dark pods add further interest. They are often seen in pastures or waste places that are not mowed often, as they can survive the occasional loss of the upper growth. The beautiful modern hybrid, E. bidwelli, with its large clusters of striking red flowers, is a cross between E. herbacea and its close relative, E. crista-galli. In areas of Texas warm enough that the branches of the Coral Bean do not freeze every winter, they can grow to become actual trunks. The underground portion of the plant slowly increases in size till digging it up becomes a real project, which can include mistakenly bumping into the thorny parts.

Hummingbirds are attracted to the flowers, which appear over a long period of time.

Common English names for Coral Bean include: Cardinal Spear, Cherokee Bean and Red Cardinal-flower. Mexican and Indian names include: Colorin, Corolillo, Patol, Pitos, Chilicote, Zampantle, Zumpantle, Tzampantle, Tzan-pan-cuohuitl, Cozquelite, Purenchegua, Pureque, Tzinacanquahuitl, Chijol, Chocolin, Pichoco, Jiquimite, Iguimite, Peonia, Chotza, Demthy, and Macayxtli, according to Robert Vines (Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines of the Southwest).

In Mexico the seeds have traditionally been used to poison rats and dogs, and to stun fish. The alkaloid erythroidine is found in all Erythrinas and has an effect similar to curare. The wood is carved into various small objects in Mexico, and the plants used as hedges or garden ornaments.

If not raised from seed, Erythrina can be grown from cuttings or shoots from the old roots or division of the rootstock. It prefers sandy soil and is found in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, to North Carolina, and down to the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and San Luis Potosi.

However, seeds are the simplest way to increase stock, and will germinate quickly if treated or scarified. One method is to hold a bean with pliers in one hand and file through the outer layer with a three cornered file. Sandpaper may also be used. Seeds can also be nicked at the end with a single edge razor blade. After the seedcoat has been nicked, soak in water until the small "root" emerges. At this time, change the water daily. Some growers prefer pouring boiling water over the seeds in a shallow dish. The seeds should quickly swell and then germinate. If not, repeat the process.

When the plants have achieved some growth, plant them in a container, leaving several inches of space between plants. The containers may be rested underneath shrubs where there is some protection from too much sun. Bring in the young plants the first season at least, so that they do not freeze. Keep these on the dry side during the winter - water lightly once a week. Keep an eye out for snails and slugs. Return them to the outdoors when spring arrives and plant out into the landscape when large enough. It will be enjoyable to see the variations in flower color and size that may occur among the seedlings.

Texas Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora
Texas Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora

Texas Mountain Laurel, (Sophora secundiflora) originally found in the Hill Country of Texas, is a small tree with evergreen, compound leaves that bears beautiful lavender-amethyst colored clusters of pea-like flowers smelling of "grape Koolaid" with bright red seeds in a semi-woody pod. It is also a member of the Fabaceae, or Pea family, and can be found in nature from Central Texas west to New Mexico, and south to San Luis Potosi in Mexico. It is native to dry, rocky limestone soils and is drought-resistant after establishment. It makes a beautiful specimen plant in the landscape.

Its common names in English include Mescal-bean sophora, hot bean, coral bean and big-drunk bean. Mexican and Indian names include: Frigolito, Frijollito, Frijolillo, and Colorin. Bees are very attracted to this plant, and there is still argument over whether or not a honey made entirely from the nectar of this tree is poisonous. The beans were well known to the native peoples to be useful to induce a form of drunkenness, delirium, hallucinations and sleep when taken in very small quantities. Eating too much of the bean is deadly. Livestock may also be poisoned by this plant. The beans are said to contain the alkaloid sophorine, which is identical with cytosine.

The seeds have an extremely hard red shell, and can take years to germinate after they fall from the tree. However, if the gardener will pick the green pods with beans that are still only pale pink in color (usually in the month of June) and sow a handful of them immediately in gallon or larger plastic containers, the seeds will usually sprout quickly and grow on until winter. Dr. Ed McWilliams, retired faculty member, Department of Horticulture, Texas A&M University, often said that the seeds could be planted as soon as the very first signs of color appeared. Some care must be taken to shelter the young plants through the first winter. Texas Mountain Laurel is not propagated from cuttings. When transplanting young plants, adding some extra calcium to the mix helps to get them established.

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