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Bird of paradise, Russian olive entice drivers on Montaño

Q. We just moved here from the Upper Peninsula and are being constantly amazed by the plants we see. When we drive across the bridge on Montaño and have the windows down, we can smell the strongest, sweetest scent. It almost seems heady being so strong. What plant gives off such a scent? Then, we’re seeing lots of these biggish shrubs that are covered with remarkable yellow and red flowers. Do you know what type of plant it might be? – M.C., Albuquerque

Tracey FitzgibbonA. The scent you are enjoying is created by the blooming of the smallish tree called a Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia).

This time of year you will find them in bloom all along the river, and in any washes or places where water tends to course towards the river.

A lot of people consider them weed trees since they can be considered water pigs, meaning they will take and ask for more water than most seem to think they deserve.

Along the river they are considered invasive, again, using more than their fair share of water.

Me, I like them. They offer a lot of visual color and then the bloom. You’re correct about the strong scent. When I notice the smell, I can tell what time of year it is.

Up close and personal you need to beware. The Russian olive is usually armed with stout, strong thorns. So if you decide to plant one, be extra cautious about placement. The leaves are a cool, silvery-gray color and shaped a lot like willow leaves.

The flowers are clusters of small, awkward, green-yellow blooms that then become clumps of smallish fruit, resembling olives, hence the name.

Birds eat the fruit and in turn poop, spreading the seed and given the proper requirements, voilÃ, a new Russian olive pops up.

At leaf drop in the autumn, the shape and color of the bark shines through. Young wood is usually a nifty dark amber-burgundy color with the older trunks and limbs looking like it’s shedding and is a silvery-gray color.

They are remarkably sturdy trees, too. Here, where we do get a taste of truly cold weather during the winter months, they sit patiently and then take off once we head into the spring months.

I consider them an easy to grow and tameable, smallish landscape tree. Also, wearing the thorns like they do, a Russian olive can be considered a great barrier plant.

Now, the wildly colorful shrubby plant you’ve noticed is probably a bird of paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii).

Not the tropical one that makes those remarkable pelican head-shaped flowers, this sturdy feathery-looking shrub can get to 10 feet tall if the growing conditions are right.

They can take a fair amount of “abuse,” doing best with deep infrequent watering rather than a set watering schedule. During the winter months, after leaf drop, they look like a pile of sticks, not offering a lot visually.

It’s during the late spring and through the early summer months that they make a show and what a show it is.

A happy bird of paradise will be covered with the most remarkable flowers of bright yellow clusters of 3-inch wide and long blooms that have red 5 inch long stamens protruding from them. They remind me of anemones in a coral reef, waving their colorful arms attracting all sorts of visitors to the bloom.

And yes, hummingbirds enjoy flitting about a bird of paradise in bloom. After their long blooming period, the smallish, plentiful, plain-green leaves stay until the first hard frost and then drop off cleanly.

If you choose to add a bird of paradise to your landscaping, do know they prefer a lot of sun. No shaded areas when choosing a planting site. They require sun in order to offer their best.

Also remember, a well-watered bird of paradise will be a fairly unhappy, weak-wooded, lazy shrub.

I think those are the answers you are looking for and welcome to your new home!

Happy Diggin’ In.

Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to