A Love Affair Gone Awry – Why I Won’t Plant Robinia Pseudocacia In My Garden Again

– Posted in: Garden Design, Trees and Shrubs

I’m a pretty intense gardener. So when I love a certain specimen, I tend to use it with great abandon in my garden. Such was the case with Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ and ‘Purple Robe’.

I first came across this specimen on a trip to London in late spring, close to two decades ago. I was taken aback by its delicate, lime colored leaves in contrast with all of the green plant material around the base of its trunk. I made note of it and knew that at some point in the development of my garden that I would find a use for at least one robinia.

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That happened in 1991 when my garden went through a major renovation: I transformed a steep sloping hillside into a garden with three levels by building extensive retaining stone walls. With two wide island beds on the left side of the steps at the top level, I felt that a strong statement was needed as a focal point as one walked upwards.

In researching robinias, I discovered that they were extremely fast growers that could thrive in poor, dry soil. At maturity, they were 30-50 feet tall and are hardy in USDA Zones 4-9.These would fit perfectly in my garden, so I thought.

I decided to plant 3 Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’ on either side of the steps in a triangular shape. I ordered them from Gossler’s Nursery (www.gosslerfarms.com) in Oregon, a terrific source for unusual shrubs and trees.

Over the next 2 years, these 6 trees bloomed into a canopy of magnificent yellowish/chartreuse blooms in the spring, followed by racemes of large, fragrant white flowers. Because the trees were only 5-6 feet tall at this time, one really felt covered by their beauty when perched at the top of the staircase. After the flowers bloomed, the trees became inundated with seed pods.

I thought to myself, “If I have a good thing, why not add more where needed”. In a long extended sweeping bed abutting my neighbors property line with evergreens acting as the buffer point, I planted three more Robinia pseuocacia ‘Frisia’, siting them in scale to the 6 already planted.

For the first 5 years of their life, I absolutely loved my robinias. Yes, they were a bit of a nuisance when a storm hit. These specimens are composed of thin, brittle branches that in a somewhat windy storm break off and land all over the garden.And when their fragrant flowers turned into seed pods, although they retained their lime color, their startling beauty faded to ‘just another tree with delicate leaves’.

At the same time that I planted one set of robinias, I bought one for Chanticleer Garden, a public pleasure garden in my neighborhood, as a gift for the garden. Over the years, the gardeners have kept it pruned as a medium sized, free form shrub in a herbaceous border and it looks stunning, much like a Catalpa bignoides ‘Aurea’ (Indian Bean Tree) does.

And because my steep front yard was in need of some delicate curb trees, I began to research out other robinias. In the rose garden at Hidcote in late May, I had seen some Robinia hispida (bristly locust) shrubs interspersed with a plethora of roses and perennials. Its delicate, rose-pink blooms were delightful. Consequently, when I found Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Purple Robe’ in Greer Garden’s catalogue (www.greergardens.com), I thought I had found a winner and immediately order 4 of them.

Again, within 2 seasons, their spring bloom with dark green leaves in the spring, along with purplish/pink pendant shaped racemes of blooms was a knock out. People walking or driving by would literally stop and stare at them.

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OK, so now I’ve given you the history of my relationship and love affair with these seductive trees. Let me tell you the down side of their personalities. Because they are so spiny and brittle and as they have become larger, more than a few branches, some of them major, break off of the tree. Secondly, their fast growth is problematic. Since I don’t buy into the theory of topping off trees, I have been unable to keep their canopy in the back area, low and welcoming. Thirdly, the shape of the trees had to be altered over several years of pruning. That is because so many of the lower branches broke off, many remaining ones were pruned to make the trees symmetrical in appearance. There now exists no sense of a canopy and the branches are so high that the only place one can view the beauty of these trees are on the lower levels.

And finally, their worst characteristic is a tendency to seed themselves any and everywhere. The first few times this happened, I thought,” How charming, I can give some small trees to my friends.” But each season, I have pulled out at least 2 dozen small trees (in borders and in my grass), along with cutting back dozens on the edge of my woodland that have become humongous. Whether or not they are labeled invasive, I don’t know. But I personally do label as an invasive species.

Would I use these trees in my garden again? Absolutely not! The only circumstance where I would use them is as Chanticleer did: as a standout shrub in a herbaceous border. Perhaps then one could keep this wild specimen under control while still enjoying its gorgeous color and delicious blooms!

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Fran Sorin
The 10th Anniversary Edition of Fran's classic book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, has recently been published. Updated with a new foreword by the renowned author, Larry Dossey, M.D., it has dozens of endorsements from renowned spiritual, gardening, and personal development authors and experts in their fields. A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology and One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, Fran is a renowned gardening expert, passionate gardener, deep ecologist, inspirational speaker, ordained interfaith minister, soul tending coach, and CBS Radio news contributor. See less Google+ | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest
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tai haku September 10, 2007, 8:31 pm

I prefer the golden Gleditzia cultivar the name of which has temporarily eluded me to sungold for many of the reasons cited. Its much nicer!

fransorin September 10, 2007, 10:46 pm

Thanks for making me aware of that cultivar. Will check it out.
If anyone has other comments on Robinias, feel free to chime in!

Rebecca September 12, 2007, 2:37 pm

I fell head-over-heels in love with Robinia pseudoacacia “purple robe” four years ago and planted one in my front yard. Biggest gardening mistake I’ve ever made. Aside from huge sections of the tree breaking off on a regular basis, the roots sent up hundreds of suckers. I eventually had to saw the tree down at the base. I continue to have innumerable suckers throughout my lawn and planting beds from the stump that won’t die. I pull them, spray them, and dig them, but I fear I will be battling this invasive tree for years to come.

fransorin September 13, 2007, 2:25 pm

Rebecca-

I agree totally. It was one of the most invasive trees that I have ever come across. And the fact that it has thorns on its branches, makes it even worse!

Danielle November 13, 2007, 9:35 am

I’m from Quebec Canada (french canadian) I really love big leaf, and color contrasting plant. Your robinia frisia and catalpa aurea has amazing look, I never see it before. I would be interesting to seedling it I’f you can send me a seed.

fsorin November 14, 2007, 5:01 pm

Danielle,

It is too late for seeds now. If you remind me next spring, I will mark it down in my calendar and send you some. Probably if you get on the internet and check it out, you’ll find some good mail order sources in Quebec. (but will be happy to send you seed next year)! Fran

P.S. I graduated from high school in Montreal!!

Paula July 1, 2008, 4:08 pm

Chanticleer has at least 2 Frisia’s not pruned – let go to full growing trees. One is in the entry area of the front parking lot, the other is larger and overhangs the front patio, where you obtain tickets. Robert Herald advised me they don’t have issues with the tree, regarding suckers or breakage. Maybe because they’re not as exposed?

jenn July 25, 2008, 9:22 am

I have a beautiful 15 – 18 ft ‘Purple Robe’ tree and everyon in my neighbourhood loves it , as do I. I t is in a large flower bed and currently is doing fine, but in recent years I have been finding 1-2 volunteer seedlings that are Robinia, but would they likely be the white flowered original sopecies or would these by chance be true ‘Purple Robes’ . I live in a zone 5b – 6 in Ontario Canada. Any answers are appreciated

Jenn-
‘Purple Robe’ is absolutely breathtaking when in bloom! It is after the bloom period that I have found them disappointing. Unlike ‘pseudocacia frisia’ whose leaves turn yellow/chartreuse ‘Purple Robes’ leaves remain an undescript green. But when in bloom, people who drive by my house actually stop and stare. Interesting about the volunteer seedlings. Have found few of them but literally dozens and dozens from ‘Pseudocacia Frisia’. Thanks for reminding us what a beautiful specimen it is! Fran

Edward McClure January 13, 2009, 11:35 am

I too loved my Robinia Frisia for the first few years, and the color and flowers are still nice, now that it’s 20 feet tall. But the wood is very weak and it suckers like mad all over my garden.

Edward-
Yes, the suckers and weak wood are a tremendous problem. Late fall, a few weeks after a major storm, I happened to look up at the 9 Robinias planted on my top hill. Lo and behold, on one of them, a central branch had split in two…probably from lightning…but still….frustrating. The only way I would have it in my garden in the future was to keep it pruned as a shrub. Thanks for your thoughts. Fran

Becky April 9, 2009, 11:53 pm

So, the Purple Robe will sucker a bunch? Great! That means new starts! I love it. I have one of these in, and look forward to it.

From what I understand, the Robinia frisia is a graft, however, so any suckers would be regular black locust. Bummer. I already have many black locusts.

Becky-
I have 4 ‘Purple Robes’ as curb trees at the bottom of my steeply sloping front yard. When in bloom, people literally stop their cars to gaze at them. Unfortunately, their leaves don’t turn into that wonderful yellow that ‘Frisia’ does as once the blooms are spent. ‘Purple Robe’ is a cultivar of black or common locust. Enjoy it! The blooms don’t disappoint!! Fran

Tony May 11, 2009, 6:30 am

Just wondering if anyone can help…

My mother passed away about 5 years ago. When we were sorting out her estate, we noticed a tree in her front garden which we believe to be a type of Robinia. It’s branches were ‘twisted’ like a corkscrew, but its branches also arched over until they grew towards the ground (like a weeping willow). I have seen photos of the ‘tortuosa’ and ‘twisty baby’ varieties, but neither of these look anything like the aspect of my mum’s tree. I’d really like a specimen for my garden (the tree was simply cut down by the people we sold the house to) for sentimental reasons and because it was such a stunning tree.

Tony-
Am wondering if it could be Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’. Check it out on google and let me know what you think! Fran

Candice September 15, 2009, 11:40 am

Well, thanks for the honest info on the Robina’s. I was online, just about to order one, when I read your comments on the Robinas. I need to replace a sick maple tree that shades our deck, and want something fast growing, unusual, and beautiful (hopefully w/a season of bloom and good fall color). I do NOT want branches falling on our deck or our house! Any suggestions??Thanks!

Dear Candice,

It is unfortunate because it’s a stunning tree. If you didn’t need it as a tree, I would suggest pruning it back to use as a shrub. My one of my favorites is Coruns Kousa, wonderful spring blooms with excellent fall color. You might also want to check out Redbud. Cericidiphyllum japonic: It is one my all time favorite trees. Also check out Parrotia persica. I wouldn’t worry as much about fast growing specimens as getting the tree that you want that will work in the location where you are planting it. Fran

Dylan December 16, 2009, 4:36 am

Thanks for the heads up. I have a standardized robinia in the front yard of a house I have only recently moved in to. I thought something was awry when I was vacuuming in a back room and noticed a sucker popping up through the ducted heating vent, some 40 feet from the tree. The compound leaves gave the culprit away.

Then I noticed that the storm water pipes from our house are blocked. Whodunnit? You guessed it. The Robinia.

I won’t cut the tree out. I can do a lot of these sort of repairs myself and I don’t mind the work associated with having such a beautiful tree. But if you have to get a plumber in every time your drainage blocks then DO NOT plant this tree.

It’s a fine line between being a horticultural philistine removing every plant that gives you problems and putting in more work than a plant is worth.

Dear Dylan-
What a great story! And you and the tree are lucky that you are handy. Otherwise, I think this wily Robinia would have been dug up (roots and all) been trashed. They are certainly seductive specimens. Appreciate your thoughts. Fran

Barbara June 26, 2010, 8:27 pm

You guys are delightful. And Funny. I have two Frisias in my clay soils in Oregon and neither suckers or seeds or even flowers. I have a regular pseudoacasia in my front yard. I planted it to nitrogenize the soil and to gro fast, fast, fast, while I wait for the Beech, which will be my ultimate front yard tree to grow so slow, slow slow. As to seedlings and suckers – am too busy pulling the million oregon ash, oak, cascarra doug fir, western redcedar and hawthorne seedlings to complain about the locust.