Few people recognize Chittamwood. I once tried to identify a tree by telephone for a rancher. He said it was thorny and had rusty red bark where cattle had rubbed against it. By a process of elimination I suggested it might be Chittamwood, and when I saw it a few weeks later while working on a poisonous plant problem on his ranch, I found out I had guessed correctly.
Chittamwood is a small size tree that can form thickets several hundred feet across. The bark of young Chittamwood is a smooth grey, or a splotchy grey before it takes on the thin cracking and reddish brown bark of old age. Rubbing off the outer layer reveals a rusty red layer beneath, often seen where deer have rubbed their antlers, probably one of the most preferred trees for this activity.
Little piles of sawdust at the base of a tree give a hint why there are more young thickets than old trees of Chittamwood. Woodboring insects take to digging tunnels and kicking the sawdust out of the hole, producing the little piles and an early death of the tree from decay organism that follows the drilling.
Deer and goats find Chittamwood leaves very palatable. The thorny twigs can be quite vicious in a headlong plunge into a thicket to catch a goat or avoid a charging mother cow. The growth of sprouts is looser than Lotebush and less thorny with some of the trees in the center becoming 20 feet tall. Most ranchers do not consider it one of their problem species, usually tolerated because of its value to wildlife as browse and berries.
Chittamwood has tiny white clustered flowers with a sweet smell that develop black berries the size of English peas. The ripe berries are sweet but not tasty. They are the first berries in the fall to be harvested by mockingbirds. Donald Culross Peattie, a noted writer of Nature a generation ago, claimed the Comanches would make their rounds of all the Chittamwood thickets when the berries were ripe to get their share. They are easy to pick if you take your time.
Chittamwood is also known as Gum Bumelia, Woollybucket Bumelia, Woolly Bumelia, Gum Elastic, Woolly Bucketthorn, and more. Scientifically, it’s named Bumelia lanuginosa, which means, literally, Woolly Bumelia. The name “Chittam” probably comes from early settlers from Europe who assumed the thorny trees of the New World were the “Shittim” trees of Biblical times from which the Ark of the Covenant was made. We know they are not the same.
Reading The Landscape
Besides laziness, what is a good explanation for the abundant growth -- when it rains -- of this weed on late winter lawns in West Texas? Click here for my answer.
Gum exudes from cracks in the bark, not enough to satisfy a baseball player to chew, but enough to entertain a small country boy. A Central American tree in the same family is a source of the gum of our chewing gum.
It is easy to identify Chittamwood from a distance in winter if you can see a profile of its upper branches. Every one that I have encountered has clusters of small branches, often called a Witches broom, caused by a reaction to Mistletoe. Apparently the tree reacts to an invasion of Mistletoe by producing hormones that increase the amount of small branches. Growth of the wood sometimes is swollen and contorted, and the Mistletoe is sickly. Apparently it is not like Mesquite and Hackberry that tolerate Mistletoe as if it just another part of the tree. Instead, I guess Chittamwood would rather put up a fight against the parasite.
The plant is London Rocket, scientifically Sisymbrium irio, which responds to abundant winter moisture and open soil, particularly on lawns that have lost the competitive grasses from drought and lack of care. It is one of the many weeds of the Mustard family that have come to us from the Old World. —JL