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  • Jennifer Anderson

The Lovely Yellowwood: A Great Choice for a Small Garden

My neighbor has a Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea), and the form of this tree is lovely and graceful, a beautiful sight on my daily dog walks. Last spring it had brilliant (and fragrant!) white blooms radiant against its bright green leaves. I love this tree and was thrilled when my town’s Urban Forestry Committee announced it is considering the Yellowwood as its Tree of the Year.

Yellowwood, rare in the wild, may be the best native shade tree for a small yard. It grows only to about 30 to 40 feet with a 40-foot spread.

It’s a spring bloomer, with cascades of white, wisteria-like (and intensely fragrant!) blooms hanging all over it. It blooms almost every year, best in full sun and some years more profusely than others, and its leaves turn a brilliant yellow-gold in the fall before letting go to prepare for winter. Its naked, zig-zaggy branches and smooth gray trunk look majestic in a cold, snowy landscape.

The EPA ranks Yellowwood a “medium” in pollinator benefit, but one site noted that the tree’s pollinator value may not have been fully researched. It definitely brings out the bees!

Yellowwood was discovered in Tennessee in the late-1700s by renowned botanist Andre Michaux. It’s named because of its heartwood, which is an unusual yellow; early settlers in the Southern Appalachians used this wood to make dye.

According to Tree Stewards (June 5, 2011), a local specimen can be found at Arlington Cemetery, just north of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and next to the Spanish American War memorial. “On a recent day in May, this yellowwood, believed to have been planted around 1890, was the picture of tranquility – casting a small shadow over the nearby headstones.”

Yellowwood grows best in well-drained soils and when planted in the fall or spring. It should be pruned in summer to ensure a strong central leader and branches that have wide angles to the trunk.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society awarded Yellowwood its Gold Award in 1994.

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