Cassia tree can attract butterflies to your Florida yard

I must be a glutton for punishment. Or I'm crazy.

Isn't the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results?

For the second time in seven years, I've endured the heartbreak of cassia blow-over. It's almost too much to bear.

My second beautiful desert cassia tree (which is actually not a desert cassia tree, but more on that later) caught some of that wind on a recent Saturday and down it went.

For the second time in seven years, my husband — who didn't like cassia No. 2 in the first place, but doesn't like to see me cry, either— muscled it up and roped it into place. The first time, our son helped. This time, the tree was so big, he had to enlist the Ford F-150 pickup. (By the way, Ben didn't like this cassia because he had to duck under it to get to the fence gate. You tall people! The world is your oyster. We reach, you duck. Don't whine.)

I met my first little darling 10 years ago at the old Hudson's Nursery in Carrollwood. It was labeled desert cassia. I needed a small tree, one that wouldn't get more than 12 or so feet tall, for a spot in my little backyard garden. I needed it to cost less than $10. I got Cassia Sr. for $5.

I was amazed at how quickly it grew. I was charmed by how the leaves folded up at dusk, like it was putting its little hands together for bedtime prayers. I loved the grace of the weeping canopy.

After a couple of years, when my cassia burst into a neon display of yellow blooms one late fall, I declared till death do us part.

And so it did.

The wicked winds of 2004 took the tree down. By then, it was huge — for a small tree. It looked absolutely tragic lying there on top of the bird feeder, its leaves unnaturally clenched at midday, as if in frantic prayer. Ben and our then-teenage son hauled it up and had it roped six ways to Sunday to keep it standing. But a few weeks later, yet another storm blew through and down it went. I had to agree: It was time for it to go.

Actually, what many of us call desert cassia is Senna surattensis, says Mike Lach, a horticulturist at Treemart in Tampa. It used to be classified as a Cassia; now it's a Senna.

"There's, like, 500 varieties," he says. "About five or six grow in our area."

It's also known as a butterfly bush because of all the cheery yellow sulphur butterflies it attracts.

It's their larval food, which means you'll occasionally find sulphur caterpillars munching on the leaves. They never strip a tree, even a small one. And if you're lucky, you might get to watch one turn itself into a chrysalis and emerge as a butterfly.

The tree remains a popular choice for people who don't want anything too large.

"For people who don't want a tree taller than crape myrtle, but not crape myrtle, there are not a lot of choices," Lach says. "This one has a lot of positives. It's at the top of most people's lists. It's drought-tolerant (once established), and it's low- to no-care."

Another major benefit is that it's easy to grow from seed. Pluck the pods when they're dry and start them in pots, or watch for the inevitable volunteers and dig them up. They will be trees by the time your infant is out of diapers.

My $5 investment 10 years ago is now populating yards all over Hillsborough. It likes full sun and well-drained soil (read: sandy dirt.) What's not to love?

Well, a few things. One rule of thumb is that any tree that grows fast will have a shallow root system, meaning it's not so stable in the wind. You can avoid the problem by letting it grow into a morbidly obese shrub.

Adding to the tipping tendency, Lach says, is the fact that it tends to be top-heavy when pruned into a tree. Most people stake them, he says.

When I saw Cassia Sr. getting top-heavy, I dedicated myself to pruning. But every cut just seemed to produce more sucker branches that grew to 8 or 9 feet long at all kinds of crazy angles. I couldn't keep up!

I thought Cassia Jr. was safe because it was leaning on our fence. Darned if it didn't blow over in the opposite direction —right on top of the veggie bed.

And, just one more downer: Life expectancy is about 10 years — even without my bad luck.

Given all that, will I keep growing it? Absolutely!

The spectacular burst of yellow blooms from late fall through midwinter makes people stop dead in their tracks. When it's not in bloom, it offers a lovely green umbrella surrounded by happy butterfly pairs doing pirouettes.

The definition of insanity? I'm not buying it.

I say, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Penny Carnathan can be reached at pcarnathan@sptimes.com, or join her in garden chat at digginfladirt.com or facebook.com/digginfladirt.

Cassia tree can attract butterflies to your Florida yard 10/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 5:30am]

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