Growing the Yellowwood Tree

yellow wood tree
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In addition to being drought tolerant, this tree works well in urban conditions. Look for it to brighten your yard with a showy floral display in spring and when the leaves turn yellow in autumn. The yellowwood name came about because the heartwood is yellow and can be used to make dyes.

Latin Name

You may see this tree classified under Cladrastis kentukeaCladrastis lutea or Cladrastis tinctoria. This is the only species in the genus to come from North America. The other six are found in Asia.


The yellowwood belongs to the Fabaceae (pea) family. This is a large family with species like wattles (Acacia spp.), silk tree (Albizia julibrissin), thornless honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis) and the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

Common Names

This tree can be called yellowwood, American yellowwood, virgilia, gopherwood, yellow wood or Kentucky yellowwood. The name came about because the heartwood is yellow and can be used to make dyes.

Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones

This tree is native to the southeastern United States. If you live in Zones 5-8, this tree should be happy in your garden.

Size & Shape of the Yellowwood Tree

The mature size of this species is 30-50' tall and wide, forming into a vase shape.


Site this tree in a spot where it will receive at least part sun. Full sun is best to encourage flowering.

Foliage/Flowers/Fruit of the Yellowwood Tree

Each leaf is up to 12" long and made up of 7-11 leaflets. They will change to yellow in fall.

The white flowers are borne in graceful clusters (racemes) and some years are heavier than others. They are favored by bees. If you prefer pink flowers, look for the 'Perkin's Pink'/'Rosea' variety.

After the blooms are pollinated, they form brown leguminous pods.

Design Tips

While the floral display is a key feature on this plant, it can be erratic. Some years will be plentiful and others sparse to none. It is still a valuable tree for its fall show and tolerance of a variety of conditions.

This tree does handle drought as long as the roots have had a proper chance to spread through a growing season of regular watering.

Growing Tips

Alkaline and acidic soils are both handled well by this tree. It can also tolerate the full range of soils from sand to clay.

The yellowwood is one of the Fabaceae family members that does not utilize nitrogen fixation. You may need to fertilize it if tests show N levels are low and symptoms like yellowing foliage appear. Test to be sure as conditions like drought or overwatering have the potential to also cause yellow leaves.

Maintenance and Pruning

This tree tends to bleed sap from wounds, so pruning should be performed after flowering is complete in the spring.

You should start pruning when this is young. The branches tend to grow close to each other and the wood can be brittle. Make sure there is a central leader. Remove crossing branches and create strong branch angles that are not narrow to help keep the tree healthier and make sure new branches are farther apart. Be careful when working on this tree as the bark is thin and can quickly become damaged.

Pests and Diseases of the Yellowwood Tree

This tree does not have any pest or disease issues crop up often. It is possible that verticillium wilt, cankers, rots, and decay could strike.