Santa Barbara Beautiful Tree of the Month – August 2022
The Mayten Tree is a perfect solution to the search to find a small- to medium-sized tree that does well in our area and that also carries the grace and beauty of a Weeping Willow.
Mayten Tree is stunningly beautiful in the landscape – with its pendulous branches covered with glistening, lacy green, leaves that sway gracefully in the breezes. It has the added beneficial characteristics of being evergreen, low-maintenance and essentially disease- and pest-free, and of requiring much less water than a willow!
Mayten Tree was introduced to California in San Francisco in 1878 and was available in Santa Barbara before 1900. While it is considered slow growing, its growth rate and ultimate size can vary greatly depending on water availability. Locally, at maturity it usually develops a rounded crown with a height and spread of 20 to 30 feet.
Its shiny green leaves are elliptical in shape (1- to 2-inches long and ¼- to ½-inch wide) and finely serrated along the edges. These are simple in form and are arranged alternately along the long narrow branchlets that hang downward from the larger branches. On some trees the leaves are held out perpendicularly to the branchlets, while on other trees they are angled downward.
Mayten Tree is monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers occur on each tree. Flowers appear in the spring and are yellowish green, quite small (3/16-inch in diameter), inconspicuous, and form in axillary clusters of 2 to 5 flowers. The flowering is very inconsistent; some trees rarely or never produce flowers.
After pollination, the flowers produce fruit that forms as yellow bivalve capsules (¼-inch long), which contain two seeds covered by a red fleshy aril. Birds love to eat them. Mayten Tree can sprout up easily from seed; however, it has not been found to be invasive in our area, most likely due to our drier climate.
The trunk is slow to add girth. Branching can be rather open, yet graceful, until it the tree reaches some maturity, afterwards the canopy thickens to provide generous shade. The bark is light gray and smooth when young, becoming fissured into rectangular flakes with age.
Mayten Tree does best when planted in full sun but can tolerate partial shade. It can grow in all types of soil but will perform much better in deep well-drained soil. Its roots are not invasive (like a Weeping Willow’s) but will tend to develop root suckers in shallow soils or if the roots are damaged in some way. Deep and infrequent irrigation during the dry season should encourage deeper rooting and reduce root sprouting.
It does require pruning when young, in order to develop good branch structure; thereafter, only minimal pruning is required or recommended. It is cold hardy to 20 F.
Mayten Tree is endemic to South America. Its native range includes the arid and semi-arid regions west of the Andes in Chile and east of the Andes from Argentina extending into Peru and Bolivia.
It is a member of the Celastraceae (also called Bittersweet) family. The botanical name for the Mayten Tree is Maytenus boaria. The genus name, Maytenus, comes from the word “manatum”, which is the indigenous Mapuche people’s name for the tree. The specific epithet, boaria, comes from the Latin word “boarius”, meaning “of cattle”, and refers to the fact that in its native habitat the tree’s foliage is a favorite food of cattle.
Mayten Tree has many practical purposes. During times when grass is scarce, such as in a chilly winter or during droughts, the foliage is cut to provide fodder for cattle and sheep. Young, tender, leaves are eaten by the indigenous people for food and are used by them in traditional medicine to reduce fevers and headaches. It is planted extensively to encourage reforestation in its native range. Its hard, dense, wood is preferred for making tool handles. The oil from its seeds is used in cooking and in the production of varnishes.
Despite its utilitarian uses, in the garden Mayten Tree is a decorative asset in our landscapes, whether planted as an elegant specimen tree or as a lacy screen. The selected cultivar, ‘Green Showers’, is a hardier, more-vigorous, form that carries slightly larger leaves and has a more robust appearance; it is propagated asexually by cuttings, so its genetically superior characteristics are the same in each tree.
Mayten Trees can be seen at the southeast corner of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse (2 mature trees), near the northwest corner of Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden (3 young trees), and at UCSB on the north side of Noble Hall. It can also be seen growing in many private gardens.
Tree-of-the-Month articles are sponsored by Santa Barbara Beautiful, whose many missions include the increase of public awareness and appreciation of Santa Barbara’s many outstanding trees and, in a long-time partnership with the City Parks & Recreation Department, the funding and planting of trees along the City’s streets.
Those who wish to honor a special someone can do so with an attractive commemorative marker that will be installed at the base of an existing street tree in the City of Santa Barbara. Because Santa Barbara Beautiful has participated in the planting to date of over 13,000 street trees, there are plenty of trees from which to choose! Application forms are available on the Santa Barbara Beautiful website, www.sbbeautiful.org.
Article and photos by David Gress