Here is a tree that is hardly ever seen and is not even widely available and yet it is one of the most adaptable and versatile trees available. It can grow in poor soils, acid or alkaline, clay, gravel or sand, it is disease and drought resistant and is even suitable for parking lot islands, which are exceptionally hostile environments  noted for compacted soils, pollution and heat. This tree also produces a fruit that is not only a boon to wildlife but has the practical benefits of producing soap, wax and varnish. And most practically of all it has a superb wood, hard and close grained, excellent for implements but most importantly renders the tree wind resistant. So, what is this mysterious wonder-tree that is hardly ever planted. It is Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii, or Sapindus drummondii, commonly known as Western soapberry. Sapindus is a genus of about twelve species in the Lychee family, Sapindaceae and are native to warm temperate to tropical regions of North America, Asia and some Pacific islands. In the case of the Western soapberry its native range in North America is from Missouri down to Louisiana and west to Mexico and Colorado. This is a vast area of differing soils, temperatures and amount of precipitation, making the Western soapberry a highly adaptable tree capable of growing throughout the temperate world, and particularly useful to Australia. But the Western soapberry is more than just a tough and useful tree. It is also beautiful. It only grows 25 to 30 feet tall, a size well suited to most gardens. The form is a vase shape that grows more rounded with age until it has a spread similar to its height. Its foliage is handsome, glossy emerald above and downy beneath, 15 inches long and divided into numerous leaflets. Most importantly these leaves turn a rich, golden orange in autumn. Early summer is when the small, white flowers emerge. These are held in clusters almost a foot long. The flowers lead to the beautiful translucent, yellow-orange,  fruit clusters. These showy globes are long lasting and  persist through the autumn, eventually ripening to black by winter. They are eagerly consumed by birds, providing much needed nourishment in winter. The furrowed red-brown bark is quite handsome, particularly as the tree ages and contributes to the tree’s winter interest.

Western soapberry is one of North America’s most attractive and useful trees, possessing true four-season appeal while being a benefit to wildlife. There is, however, a certain toxicity to the fruit and they should not be consumed by humans, so plant accordingly. It remains rare in the nurseries but would more than worth the trouble to locate.


Western soapberry

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