I picked a mimosa bloom the other day. I don’t think I’ve done that since I was a kid. I was walking along my driveway for the evening stroll with Max. From the top of the bank, out of the woodland edge, a solitary limb was reaching for a share of the sunlight.
I’m not sure why I did it, except that I used to pick them all the time when I was a kid. We’d pull them off and rub them on our faces like one of those brushes Mama used for putting on her makeup. Softer than a cotton ball, I don’t know that there’s a more delicate flower in the plant kingdom. Maybe a dandelion, but it falls apart. The mimosa is durable.
I rubbed the fluffy blossom across my chin. Yep. Pretty much the way I remembered it.
There were two big mimosa trees in our front yard in the early 60s. One was massive but falling apart. It got damaged by the fire when the house burned to the ground in 1953. The other was the perfect climbing tree for a kid who had not yet learned the effects of gravity.
I wore my Superman cape in that tree on warm summer days. A discarded piece of cloth my mama gave me from her sewing room. The branching and crotches were close enough to give a kid a chance to get up high. I could see Uncle Clem’s house on Simpson Mill Road from up there.
A mimosa is almost tropical in appearance. Wide open structure. Arching canopy in the shape of an umbrella. Large, lacey leaves that hang softly in the breeze and make interesting shadows on the ground. I could lay in the shade of that tree and look up through the branches and conjure up imaginary places far away.
By the end of the summer, the seed pods will start to hang. I always thought they were like oversized butter bean pods. Long, flat, slightly curved pods that are brown and gooey on the inside in summer. By winter they turn almost black. They are so dry that they crumble in your hands like burned paper. I used to shoot small rocks at them with my slingshot. I liked the way they exploded when you hit one.
This time of year, it’s not unusual to hear from a few newcomers to the south.
“What’s that tree I’m seeing everywhere around here with pink flowers?”
First guess is a Crepemyrtle. They are abundant in the southern landscape and most folks from up north or out west have never seen one if they have not lived outside their home state.
“No, I’ve got one of those in my yard,” they say. “I’m seeing this tree all along the highway, poking out from the edge of the woods with those little bright pink fluffy looking flowers.”
And I love it when they say it must be native. “I love using native plants.”
“Okay, that’s a mimosa. And it’s not native around here by a long shot.”
“Well, can I buy one of those at your nursery?”
“Afraid not. No nurseryman in his right mind would grow a mimosa.”
“Oh my. Why not? They’re so preeeeety.”
“Mimosa is a weed, like dandelions. You wouldn’t plant dandelions in your lawn would you?”
“Uh, no. But this is a tree. I really like the way it looks.”
“Yes ma’am. It is unique. My granddaughter would prefer a whole yard full of dandelions, too, but her logic is ill conceived. You really don’t want a mimosa in your landscape.”
It’s a hard sell to convince someone that they don’t want a tree when they are fixated on it. In their mind a mimosa would be the perfect tree.
I tried to persuade a friend of mine, years ago, that she did not want a Bradford Pear. She begged. I pleaded against the idea. She wore me down. In the end, I tried to sneak in a Cleveland Pear hoping she wouldn’t notice. A couple years passed, and she did notice. She cornered me on it, and I confessed to my crime. She has never let me forget my deception.
It’s not that I think the mimosa ranks up there with kudzu. But it is invasive. It can take over when you’re not paying attention.
Quite a few years ago, I would regularly travel down US 431 out of Phenix City to go see a nursery buddy of mine. Not far out of town, on the left side of the highway headed south, there was a large, terraced hillside that had been carved out when the state needed fill dirt during the construction of the four-lane highway. Once the construction was complete, the cut-out was abandoned and left naked.
Over a couple of years, that hillside became covered with mimosa. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more mimosa in one place. Thousands of them, so thick it was like mimosa hair on a dog’s back. A blanket of green and pink scattered over a couple of acres.
In case you’re a tree nerd and remotely interested, here’s a couple little mimosa factoids. Originally native to southeast Asia, mimosa was brought into North America in the mid-1700s. Don’t confuse it with the European mimosa which has a bright yellow flower, from which mixing champagne with orange juice, as in saying to the bartender, “Give me a Mimosa,” got its name.
My herbal/medicinal friends will tell you that our southern mimosa is good for all kinds of ailments. Our friends who tend honeybees will tell you that mimosa is a great pollinator and good for the honey business. My opinion? They make good climbing trees for kids with capes and that’s about it.
Truth is, our southern mimosa is a distant cousin to the umbrella tree of the African savannah. You’ve probably seen the photos of this tree silhouetted against the bright orange setting sun, like an umbrella spread out over the horizon. The perfect height for grazing by long-necked giraffes.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on a southern staple. It doesn’t look like were going to get rid of the mimosa anytime soon. In fact, the real plant nerds, about 30 years ago, discovered a bronze foliage mimosa hiding out in Japan and brought it to the good old US of A. It has been put on the market as ‘Summer Chocolate’. Dark maroon, almost brown leaves, with the same bright pink flowers that you and I know all too well.
What’s not to like about chocolate anything, right?
So, do something exotic. Plant a mimosa. Or, at least, find a bloom by the roadside and rub it on your cheek. Remember what it was like to climb a tree and be 10 foot tall above the roof of the house. Wear a cape if you can find one that fits. Imagine your own tropical adventure.
Just don’t blame me if inside five years you’ve got 3 million little mimosa trees growing under the fence line and under your holly bushes and taking over the far corner of your back yard.
It’s a weed.