Silverleaf mountain mahogany is a hardy survivor with a delicate side.
If you are ever hiking the limestone trails of the Rolling Plains or the rocky chaparral uplands of the northern Trans-Pecos and come across a seemingly alien plant that seems to be growing feathers, take a closer look. The otherworldly plant may be silverleaf mountain mahogany.
Cercocarpus (Greek for “tail” and fruit”) montanus (Latin for “mountain”) is a well-named native perennial. Its seeds sport fuzzy feather-like tails, and it often grows at elevations above 4,000 feet. It requires little moisture and is adapted to withstand hot, direct sunlight and fire.
Spanning from Texas into New Mexico and other Western states, it is notably identified by its silver, feathery fruits occurring from May to November here.
The hairs on these fruits aid in dispersal, often getting carried by the wind or caught in animal fur. When these strange- looking fruits finally come to rest in dry, well-drained soil, they begin to curl or “twist” to help anchor themselves for germination.
Dainty, yellowish flowers precede the fruit. The plant’s leaves are primarily evergreen, remaining dark green on top all year-round with a white or silver fuzzy underside.
While silverleaf mountain mahoganies in Texas can grow up to 15 feet tall, they often don’t get beyond shrub size because they make popular forage for deer, antelope and livestock.
Indigenous tribes found numerous ways to utilize the parts of this hardy plant to overcome numerous ailments in their difficult day-to-day lives.
Almost every part of the plant was used to combat medical problems ranging from stomach aches, pneumonia, coughs and colds to wound care of sores, cuts and burns. It was brewed with tea and ground up for dyes and paints. In New Mexico, Spaniards used the leaves around and under their mattresses to ward off bedbugs. The wood was used to make tools.
In today’s Texas yards and landscapes, it can be used as a small, drought-tolerant ornamental for its unique beauty.
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