Bladdernut: Add a little fun to your Piedmont landscape

Flowers of Staphylea trifolia

If you’ve got a moist, shady spot in your southeast Piedmont yard, consider Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia). This trifoliate (three-leaflet leaf) shrub that naturally occurs on Piedmont floodplains makes me smile no matter what time of year I’m admiring it.

I rescued mine from a floodplain about to be bulldozed some twenty years ago when it was a spindly little foot-high bit of green. The mother plant is now twenty feet tall, and it has produced a crop of suckers from its roots, creating a pretty little Bladdernut thicket.

Right now, the bell-shaped clusters of yellow-green flowers are just opening in earnest. Yesterday afternoon, I spotted two Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies dangling from the clusters as they sipped nectar from the newly opened flowers. Some years, I’ve seen as many as a dozen butterflies simultaneously enjoying the Bladdernut flowers, resembling animated Christmas ornaments as they floated between floral clusters.

I’ve never noticed any fragrance from these flowers, but the butterflies and other pollinators seem to have no difficulty finding them. However, it’s not just the flowers that make this native beauty special. The fruits are even more amazing. The inflated balloon-like fruits look like miniature pale green Japanese lanterns as they dangle from the ends of branches. These little fruits persist from summer through fall and always spark questions from visitors to my yard.

When I was taking Piedmont plant identification classes in long-ago days, this shrub/small tree was one of the easiest to learn, because its leaf arrangement is so distinctive. It is our only trifoliate opposite-leaved shrub. Combine that with the fact that it grows in floodplain environments, and you have every student’s dream — an easily identified plant. Younger shrubs also have distinctive and attractive striped bark.

The trifoliate leaves emerge bright spring green and darken a bit with summer; its fall color is nothing special. But the Japanese lantern fruits often persist after leaf fall, providing late-season interest.

That’s just gravy as far as I’m concerned. This lovely native had me the moment I realized it is a butterfly magnet in bloom, and that it throws its own outdoor parties — complete with Japanese lantern decorations — from summer through fall.


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