Texas ebony (formerly classified as Pitecellobium flexicaule, now Ebenopsis ebano) is a slow-growing thorny, bushy shrub that can be trained into a single or multi-trunked, medium-sized patio tree. It is valued as a semi-evergreen shade tree with a dense canopy. Other common names include Ebano, Ebony Apes-earring and Ebony Blackbead.

Growth, soil

This popular shrub, or small-to-medium size tree, is native to the lowland regions of the Gulf of Mexico from southern Texas to northeastern Mexico.

  • Growth extensions

It grows from 25 to 40 feet tall and 20 to 40 feet wide with a trunk that can reach 2 feet in diameter. It grows tallest in the forests around the southern tip of Texas on the Rio Grande River. When that far south, it has a wide, dense, evergreen canopy.

  • Soil

This sun-loving tree prefers sandy soils but is very adaptable to most any soil if it is well-drained.

Drought, heat

Ebony does not do well where temperatures reach lower than 15 degrees, which causes tip browning and dying back. Its hardiness zone is 9.

On the “Water Use It Wisely” website, the Texas ebony is listed as “plant of the month” in June of 2016 because of its low water needs and high heat tolerance. It is also acknowledged for its “highly ornamental, glossy, dark green foliage” as its most striking feature. I personally think the abundance of fragrant flowers is right up there, too.

Flowers, seeds

The tree is known to bloom massively several times a year.

  • Blooms appear late spring through mid-summer

Multiple times, from late spring through mid-summer, the whole tree erupts in masses of fragrant, light yellow to creamy puff-ball or catkin-like flowers. Cylindrical, dense spikes of flowers are 1 to 1½ inches long and grow on a stalk about ¾ inches long.

  • Seed pods appear in fall

Its seed pods are large, 4 to 6 inches long, brown or black, flattened and hairy, which may stay on the tree until after the flowering season the next year, and appear in the fall. These seed pods are quite durable and can be collected and used in dry flower arrangements, offering a unique texture.

  • Seeds

The seeds can also be boiled and roasted for eating, and the seeds and pods are often polished and strung to be made into jewelry. A drink like coffee can also be made from roasted beans.

Leaves, branches

  • Leaves

The Texas A&M Tree ID website describes the leaves as being alternate, double-compound, around 2 inches long and 3 inches wide. There are two to four pairs of pinnae and no terminal leaf or leaflet. Each pinna is made up of three to five pairs of very dark green, leathery, evergreen leaves that are shiny on top and paler underneath.

  • Branches

The branches are stout but flexible and grow in a zigzag manner with many pairs of half-inch thorns at the nodes. The thorns make it a desirable barrier shrub in landscaping, but consideration should be given to the type of traffic in the area.

  • Wood

The wood of the Texas ebony is very heavy, hard and close grained, which makes it almost indestructible. This makes it very desirable for fence posts, and it’s valued in cabinet work. The color is dark red-brown tinged with purple. The bark of the tree is grayish, turning very dark to black and rough with age.

Los Ebanos, Texas international ferry crossing

An interesting fact indicative of the durability of the Texas ebony trees: The border town of Los Ebanos, was named for the ebony trees on the banks of the Rio Grande River. The very last hand-pulled ferry across the Rio Grande is located there and is still in operation.

The ferry is anchored to the ebony trees on both sides of the river. The ferry had already been in use since the 1800’s when it was made an official border crossing in 1950, and the ferry was declared an historical site in 1975. It carries two to three cars at a time – and for $4 you can ferry your car across into Mexico.

Passengers are encouraged to get out of their cars and help pull the ferry across the river. If you are on foot, it only costs $1.25. And yes, it is a legal international border crossing, so have your papers in order. You can view several interesting documentaries/interviews on YouTube. A good one is Los Ebanos by The Texas Bucket List. The anchor connections are briefly visible in some frames.

You can see the tree growing locally in the xeriscape section of the Master Gardener Victoria Educational Gardens at Victoria Regional Airport.

The Gardeners’ Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension – Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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