Plant of the Month: Cladrastis kentukea
Guest Author: Ben Hitz – summer intern
Cladrastis kentukea, American yellowwood, is a medium sized tree with a patchy native range in the southeastern United States. Despite its small native habitat, C. kentukea is hardy to zone 4 and performs well outside of its natural distribution.
Growing 40-50’ tall, C. kentukea has a broad, upright branching habit and a rounded crown. Like all members of the Fabaceae (legume) family, C. kentukea has pinnately compound leaves and distinctive five-parted flowers. The flowers are fragrant, white, and arranged in hanging panicles that emerge in mid spring. White seed pods emerge from the flowers and mature in September to October. These pods are accompanied by yellow fall color.
C. kentukea is an easy-to-grow tree that prefers medium moisture, well-drained soils, and full sun. Its broad crown makes it an ideal shade tree. C. kentukea is becoming increasingly popular as a yard and street tree. Once relegated to the leafy suburbs, C. kentukea is now being planted on the streets of cities such as Philadelphia.
The Society of Municipal Arborists selected C. kentukea as Urban Tree of the Year in 2015. Its deep root system allows for shade plants to be grown underneath. The showy, fragrant flowers of C. kentukea are an added bonus. The tree can be planted near a water feature to enhance the scent of its flowers.
The heartwood of C. kentukea contains a dye that colors it a deep yellow, hence its common name American yellowwood. This attractive wood has been used to make gunstocks, furniture, and decorative inlays. Some cultivars have recently been selected, such as ‘Perkin’s Pink’, which features pink flowers, and ‘Sweetshade’, a slightly stouter tree with a broader crown. C. kentukea is an excellent choice for your landscape.