Plant of the Week
Latin: Albizia julibrissin
One of my father’s favorite trees was one he called a "Formosa," a tree I
learned in college was correctly called Mimosa.
In the arrogance only educated youth can possess, I assumed dad had mixed up
the names in the war years of the 1940s when the Nationalist Chinese were taking
refuge from Chairman Mao’s communists on "Formosa" - known today as Taiwan.
Now I know that "Formosa" is the Portuguese word for "beautiful", and quite
possibly this name was one of the colloquial names used for the tree we call
Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) is a medium-sized deciduous tree that
blooms in the summer and was, at one time, as much a symbol of the southern
landscape as the crapemyrtle. But mimosas have fallen from favor amongst
southern gardeners and now it is often considered a weed-tree.
A move is currently afoot amongst Arkansas regulators and policy makers to
add it to a forbidden plants list; a kind of silvan prohibition policy.
Mimosas are capable of reaching 35 feet in height with a spread of 50 feet on
old trees. It is usually low-branched, forking from near the ground and makes a
great climbing tree for children. Trees seldom live more than 25 or 30 years,
but they grow quickly, and once you get started along the mimosa path, you
usually have one lurking about somewhere in the border.
The leaves are bipinnately compound with leaflets only slightly larger than a
grain of rice. At night on cool evenings, the leaves fold up, helping explain
the Chinese name for the tree which is hehuan and translates as "shut
happy," symbolizing a happy couple in bed.
The 5- to 7-inch, fragrant, pink powderpuff of blooms appear in July. The
mimosa is a member of the legume family; the flowers of this species are
acacia-like and consist of numerous, long, showy stamens, not the more familiar
pea-flower of the tribe. But when the seed pod develops, its membership in the
legume family is obvious. The 6-inch long pods are filled with hard seeds.
These seeds are well protected by their bony exterior and remain viable in
the soil for at least five years, and probably much longer. Because the seeds
retain this spark of life, mimosas are prone to come up unexpectedly in the
garden, abandoned fields or other waste places.
Mimosa is native from Iran to eastern China. Beginning about 1745, the French
Jesuit missionary Pierre Nicholas d’Incarville (1706-1757) introduced a number
of trees from northern China to western gardens, including tree of heaven,
Chinese arborvitae, golden rain tree, Chinese sophora and the mimosa.
In Beijing, he was assigned to the Imperial court as a glass blower inside
the walls of the Forbidden City; his religious duties held in abeyance by
Emperor Qianlong who ruled during the Qing Dynasty from 1736 to 1795. In 1755
d’Incarville presented the Emperor a plant of Mimosa pudica (Sensitive
Plant). The gyrations of this touch-sensitive plant so amused and amazed the
Emperor that d’Incarvalle was allowed to roam the gardens of the Forbidden City
freely where the Emperor lived with his 40 wives and consorts.
The date given for mimosa’s introduction into the United States is 1745, but
this seems suspect as there is no obvious connection between d’Incarville and an
American plantsman. It's possible that John Bartram received them from his
London correspondent at that early date, but Berkley’s 800-page volume of
Bartram’s letters is not indexed by plant names so finding it is hopeless.
Mimosa was grown in Mr. Jefferson’s Monticello garden. Possibly he obtained
seeds when he served as Ambassador to France during the 1780s.
My father’s fondness for mimosa was due to the tree’s ability to grow large
enough to actually make shade on the droughty, shallow soils of our Oklahoma
farm. In more hospitable soils throughout the southeastern states, Fusarium wilt
has become widespread and kills many mimosas while in their prime. Mimosa
webworm is also a serious summertime pest that can defoliate the tree and leave
dirty, brownish webs cloaking the naked branches of the tree.
I enjoy the beauty of mimosa in the summertime landscape. But, that doesn’t
mean I would want to grow one in my yard. It has naturalized in our climate but
is neither overly assertive nor a serious threat as an introduced weed.
For one, I think the summertime landscape of the South is a better place
because this Asian import has joined the stewpot of our flora.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension News -
July 23, 2004
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