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Cladrastis kentukea

Photo: Robert Polomski

Big can be beautiful.

Growing 30 to 50 ft. high and 40-50 ft. wide, yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) sports smooth brown-gray bark (similar to American beech) and an upright, rounded and irregular crown. You’ll find this native growing wild on slopes and ridges, along stream banks, roadsides, and old fields. The common name yellowwood refers to the yellow dye that colors its heartwood.

Although this American native was introduced into the nursery trade in 1812, yellowwood lacks the widespread appeal of the vertically challenged dogwoods. Nevertheless, yellowwood deserves a place in the landscape. I’m fond of its distinctive 8-12-inch long, compound pea-green leaves that turn butter yellow to golden orange in fall. However, I’m most impressed by its May floral display: 6-12-inch long panicles of white fragrant flowers reminiscent of wisteria; they give rise to 3-5-inch long brown beanlike pods.

This breathtaking floral display is always a special event because yellowwood has a boom-bust cycle of flowering: one year it produces copious numbers of flowers and in the second, sometimes third year, a lighter display. Although it doesn’t bloom reliably every year, its other features make the wait worthwhile.