As the I Madonnari festival nears and the city fills to the brim this Memorial Day weekend, Santa Barbara's glorious jacarandas are bursting into bloom. The purple bell-shaped blossoms transform the city with eruptions of vibrant lavender color, reminding us that June is just around the corner.
Purple jacaranda trees are unusual in that they drop their leaves in the spring before they flower and then re-leaf during the summer, making their lively lilac bloom uninterrupted by green leaves.
Native to Central and South America, the Jacaranda mimosifolia - the proper name for Santa Barbara's Jacaranda - was popularized here in California by the horticulturist Kate Sessions, who imported seeds from around the world to populate the then barren Balboa Park in San Diego. The Jacaranda does exceptionally well in our dry coastal climate and can be found growing prolifically in Australia, the Mediterranean and Africa. In fact, Pretoria, a city in South Africa, has such an abundance that it has been affectionately named The Jacaranda City.
When the flowers fall, they retain their purple color, producing a vivid purple carpet. The flowers are followed by distinctive flat, two-inch seed pods reminiscent of castanets.
Jacarandas in Santa Barbara are abundant. Carrillo Street is lined with them, most especially between Garden and Laguna streets, and they fill the Five Points Plaza parking lot on Upper State. Looking down upon Santa Barbara this time of year from the hills, the purple jacarandas brighten the lush Santa Barbara greenery.
But before you grow this well loved tree remember that some say the nicest jacaranda is on your neighbor's property, where you can enjoy it without having to keep a rake handy.