Leopard Tree

Libidibia ferrea

formerly Caesalpinia ferrea
Family: Fabaceae Origin: Native to Brazil and Bolivia, South America

A large, semi-deciduous tree, the Leopard Tree can be pruned to a size suitable for suburban streets. This feature, its ornamental floral and autumn leaf display plus its hardiness in drought and frost conditions have seen the tree used by many Queensland councils and landscapers.

In recent times however, the trees have been deemed a nuisance because of their tendency to spread roots beneath concrete and into pipes. Also, because their fallen seed pods present a significant trip hazard to pedestrians and because the trees’ branches cannot support weight and are therefore difficult to prune without the assistance of an elevated work platform.

The wood from Leopard Trees can present as an instant allergen to a number of people who have previously been unexposed. Despite this, it is a widely used in flooring, furniture manufacturing and to make gun grips. Its particular tonal qualities also mean that the trees’ timber is ideal for use in guitars.

Growth form

Typically cropped to 10-12 metres or less for suburban plantings, the trees can get to 20 metres tall when left to grow. With age, the trees’ canopy becomes dense and their trunk thickens. The branches spread to 6-8 metres.

Leopard Tree

Arboriculture

Trunk

The tree sheds its bark leaving a distinctive, grey and white dappled effect across the trunk. The pattern is reminiscent of leopard-print, hence the trees’ unique name.
The distinctive bark of a leopard tree

Flowering

Leopard tree flowersSpikes of bright yellow flowers are produced at the ends of stems on the tree, the colour further reinforcing the trees’ commonly derived name. These panicles can become messy when falling and do attract birds, bees and butterflies to the tree.

Foliage

Foliage on a Leopard treeLeopard trees have delicate, layered foliage with very small acacia-like leaves.
Growing in compound formation, the leaflets average 2.5 cm in length although when used in bonsai, the leaves can be stunted to as little as 1.5 cm each.
They foliage is dark green until autumn when it drops in a spectacular display of raining red. Regrowth appears as a pinkish-red, later developing to its mature green.

Management

Propagation

Indehiscent, the hard seedpods of these trees will not break open without assistance. Once hammered apart, the seeds inside are relatively easy to germinate. They need to be scarified and soaked in water but afterwards will
readily take to soil and sprout within days.

Propagation from cuttings is also possible when older wood is used in combination with dipping into a plant hormone.

Cultivation

Fast-growing if given fertile, well-drained soil and full-sun. The main consideration when cultivating these trees is to plant in open areas away from underground sewerage systems, pipes or beneath concrete where they will invade.

Very hardy, Leopard Trees survive drought-conditions, cold tending to frost, root pruning and transplantation. The tree can also be clipped at a young age without causing any damage to its development.
An ongoing cleaning schedule is necessary to prevent the trees from become a problem. They will drop leaves all-year round with increases in autumn. Their flowers fall as well as their hard, black seed pods which can form a tripping hazard on paths and walkways or cause injury if left on the grass and flicked at high speeds when spat out by mower blades.

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Comments

  1. Dave says

    G’day David,

    My neighbor has just planted a young Leopard tree, about 1.8 m high. It is about 2m from our fence, 5m from a sewage line and 6m from a concrete driveway. Also about 5m from my roof which has solar panels. Will thi become a problem. Should I take drastic action now as my neighbor is unapproachable.

    Cheers Dave

    • Jos says

      I am in the process of trying to have a large leopard tree removed that is on my neighbours land (Brisbane). The tree is a meter away from my boundary, probably 10 metres or so high, growing rapidly, and is shading my solar panels. If I can convince my neighbour to allow me to remove the tree,

      I doubt that my neighbours will come to the party regarding half payment to remove the tree, so I am looking at $1,500 or more to have it removed

      • Jill says

        If a neighbour’s tree is blocking solar panels you can apply to QCAT to have it removed. This would be at the owner’s cost. Or at least trimmed/maintained.

        We are removing a lovely 20m leopard this morning from our front yard as it is invading our pipes. Very sad but she has to go!

        Call Jacob at Cheapest Tree Lopping and Arbor Works in Brisbane. Way cheaper than $1500. He’s charging about $800 all in including stump grinding. Tell him Jill referred him. Lovely guy!

        Good luck!

  2. Peter watson says

    I have a large leopard tree on the nature strip in front of
    my house and it is pouring out white sap. it is literally leaking down the full length of the trunk and making a mess of the driveway. This particular tree is one of a few and the others seem to be unaffected.Any ideas of the problem or possible cure?

  3. Tony says

    We are in Perth and planted 2 leopard trees about March. They have both lost all their leaves and appear to have new growth at all just look like sticks. Any advice please.

    • Vicki Grant says

      Hello, I’ve just read your post & by now I’m hoping your trees are a mass of green leaves & yellow flowers I also am lucky to be the owner of the most beautiful tree, we bought our home almost 11yrs ago & the tree was around 3-4 meters tall & now it’s around 11-12 meters tall & still growing & I have seen trees that appear to be double the size. The tree is ever changing which makes it a source of wonder it is admired by all who visit our home & provides shade for anyone who wishes to take advantage of it I have bromeliads placed all over the trunk of it & a birdbath sits beneath in a subtropical garden & it’s teaming with wildlife I could sit & stare at it all day long & I probably will when I retire, I do hope you get the enjoyment from your tree that mine has given to me.

    • Jannice Acres says

      I am a regular visitor from the uk. My friend’s leopard tree looked bare and dead last year, in December, whereas its companion tree nearby was fine. However, this year the tree is back in full leaf and looks healthy. I nicknamed this species the “shower tree” some years ago, as I noticed that after rain, during an otherwise dry summer spell, the rainbow lorikeets love bathing in the leaves, opening their wings to catch water drops, and even turning upside down, all very noisy together. A fun sight. I have had difficulty identifying this tree as I looked it up under Australian species!

  4. Bruce says

    Hi,

    We have a Leapord Tree at the front of our house, lovely tree in a great spot. When we had our driveway redone they must have ripped up part of its root system (3 years ag0) and the tree has never been the same. It has quite a few dead branches and right now its lost all of its leaves (just dropped a heap of seeds everywhere) where every other Leopard Tree in our neighbourhood is still lush & green (Chapel Hill). Any advice as to how we might prune / nurse the tree back to good health would be appreciated.

    Thanks

    Bruce

  5. Lee says

    Hi David,
    I am looking to transplant a well established Leopard tree on the Sunshine Coast that is currently well positioned to cause disaster to driveways, footings and pipes, its around 6-7 metres tall and there are exposed roots that extend beyond the tree line, they dont appear to be too large in diameter. My questions are:
    1. will the tree cope with canopy trimming to allow easier transporting?
    2. How big is the root system, im more concerned about what i can’t see than what i can see.
    3. Will the tree survive root trimming and transplanting?

    Thanks in advance, appreciate your article.

    • Paulette says

      Hello David,

      Ive just read the message from Lee about transplanting his Leopard tree. We have a beautiful tree that is coming down tomorrow as it is in the path of a new extension we r building. People want to just rip it out saying it won’t survive a transplant but i want to try and save it. It’s about 12 metres and about 15 years old. Can u offer any advice. Love to hear from u!
      Thanks heaps.
      Paulette.

  6. esmay says

    Hi we have a rather large leopard tree recently it is splitting and shedding its bark it is baron of leaves and appears stressed.just wondering if you know if it could be dying off.We are at Donnybrook and have been told by a neighbour that they once had one and the bark showed similar signs of stress however it was ladened with leaves and after some heavy rain the big branches split from the trunk falling across a shed.We were thinking it might be best to chop it down if this is the case.

  7. Barbara Wright says

    Hi David, We are thinking of moving onto acreage in the Lockyer Valley and love the Leopard tree. We wish to plant maybe a few but what to know if they have an affect on asthma or sinus sufferers and how far from pipes or the house should we plant them. Your advice would be very much appreciated.

    Barb Wright.

  8. Jill says

    Hi David, I love my leopard tree, but I have root problems extending into toilet pipes. I am in Caboolture and was wondering if you come up this way and what would be an approximate price for removal of the tree? From reading your article I think this is my best option for the future of my property. Thank you for any help you can give.

  9. Margie says

    Hi we have a leopard tree approx 6 metres from our house. We want to keep the tree but are concerned about 2 large roots from it going under our house. We’ve had two people look at it. One said to prune the height and remove the roots the second not to prune the height and only remove a small part of the root near the house and put in a root barrier. Would you agree with the second advice rather than the first? Margie

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Margie. Yes, the second person advised you correctly. It’s very difficult to prune a leapard tree for height without internodal pruning which would lead to more problems later.

      • Margie says

        Thanks so much for your response. The tree is about 6 metres from the house and there are two roots running across the lawn and under the house. Would it be safe to cut them close to the house and put in a root barrier?

        Margie

      • David Taylor says

        Hi Margie. Due to liability issues I can’t say without taking measurements onsite. The two primary factors you are balancing are retaining stability for the tree and reducing moisture uptake by the tree from the soil near your foundations.

        Regarding the former you need to bear in mind that leopard trees are one of the most common species of tree to uproot in storms in Brisbane. For the latter the depth of root barrier installed is relevant also. It’s the moisture uptake of the roots that leads to soil volume reduction that causes damage to foundations rather than the roots themselves.

        All that said, from what you’ve written it sounds like you’re on the right track so long as you have a professional on hand to assess the above factors.

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Tom. I haven’t been able to find any evidence they are toxic. They aren’t listed in any of the usual places I would look (including a list of toxic plants and trees the Qld government publishes). It’s likely they are safe since so many seed pods get chewed up by dogs and cases of poisoning would be widely reported, but of course I can’t vouch for them.

      • Rob says

        Hi David,
        Thank you for your very informative article. We had a horse property with Leopard Trees in various paddocks as shade trees. Horses used to relish the pods as crunchy snacks with no obvious I’ll effects.
        Can also vouch for the negatives. Have mature specimens on common property of a residential estate. The ground under the canopy is deviod of grass and pods present a mowing hazard. Large surface roots are a trip hazard.

  10. Tertius says

    How can i get a Leopard Tree into Western Australia, i will even smuggle one in and pay any amount, want it for a bonsai tree

    • David Taylor says

      Ellenby Tree Farm in Gnangara sells them.

      It’s also not hard to have seeds and saplings imported to WA. There’s a DPI inspection that costs $50. Most large nurseries on the eastern seaboard will know the process and organise it for you.

  11. Julie bagoly says

    We currently have 4 leopard trees approx 5-6 metres from the house. We have had root problems in our toilets pipes, but now have our front paving on the verandah lifting and cracking and external brick work and gryprock cracking in the house. I suspect the trees are the problem with our on going drought conditions. Would appreciate your advise on how to poison these trees and get rid of them.

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Julie

      I’m afraid that’s typical of leopard trees. I suggest you have an arborist remove them for you. I’m happy to do so if you live in Brisbane, just use the contact form on this site or phone me on 1800 tree dr.

      Please don’t poison them before removal. Dead trees are much more dangerous to climb and can make tree removal more expensive.

  12. Carmel says

    Hi
    We have a leopard tree that is roughly 15-20metres high at the front of our house. It is in front of my sons bedroom, due to this I’m a little concerned of what may happen in the event of a severe QLD storm (I’m from Brisbane). I also find it constantly sheds a lot of leaves all over our front yard. I called an arborist to see if they can trim about 10metres off the height of the tree. They strongly advised trimming the leopard tree and said its best to leave it as is. If we wanted to trim so much off we should just remove it all together. Is this correct?

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Carmel. You’ve been given very good advice. Due to the growth form of leopard trees they can’t be substantially pruned for height without destroying the structural integrity of the tree.

  13. Adrian says

    Hi,

    My house (and importantly pool) are overlooked by a large leopard tree on council land.

    The tree has caused structural damage to both council pathways and my pool as well as rendering my pool now non-viable (shaded all the time so too cold to swim) and reducing the effectivity of my solar PV panels on my house.

    Needless to say I want the tree gone, but council keep telling me it’s a healthy tree and they won’t cut it down.

    I’m left with 2 options:

    1) Kill the tree illegally and cope with whatever penalty I face

    2) Move house and let it be someone else’s problem.

    Any advice? Can you tell me what the likely penalty would be for illegally tampering with a nuisance tree?

    Is there a sneaky way of resolving this undetected?

    Any thoughts would be appreciated

    Adrian

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Adrian. Sorry that’s outside the scope of my work. I suggest you discuss this matter with your legal advisor.

  14. says

    I live in unit in Kingston earlier this year I fought to get a huge leopard tree cut down it was hanging over my fence leaving a mess everywhere anyway it was cut down but what I would like to know is that I have a small branch of this tree growing at the back of me in the units by the fence anyway I can send this photo to you so you can tell me if it is the regrowth of the leopard tree or not somehow I don’t think so the leaves look different to your pictures please let me know couldn’t it growing again thanks heaps

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Gill

      Their roots are strong and will grow far beyond the drip line of the tree. Have a look at some large leopard trees on footpaths to see how they break concrete.

      Regards, David.

  15. Annette connolly says

    Hi
    We have a leopard tree on the verge out the front of our house. It has become a real nuisance as it keeps shedding its leaves. No sooner have the leaves grown back, the tree starts to shed them again. Do you think it may have a disease or be stressed? We would like to have someone look at it and give us some guidance with what to do. If it keeps constantly shedding we would like to have it removed. I am well aware of the problems we may come across as its on council property.
    It really is a hazard as the leaves shed onto our pavers and then become slippery.
    Would appreciate it if you could let me know what you think.
    Cheers
    Annette

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Annette,

      I’m sorry to say that leaf litter is typical of even a healthy leopard tree. You’re also likely to find your council is recalcitrant in removing it for you due to the expense.

      Nevertheless if you live in Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast or the Gold Coast we can assess it for you. Often we can report on structural faults or other issues that can sway councils to act.

  16. says

    I have 2 12 year old leopard trees that have always been healthy trees. This spring however it appears to have some type of dieback affecting its outer branches. The main branches appear to be green but there is hardly any new leaf coming and I thought by now I should have the lovely spring foliage. Should I prune them back to the green wood. I live on the Darling Downs at Jandowae and would like some advice. Thanks Barb Rathmellarerea

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Barb

      The first thing to check is the way the leaves are dying back. If they are being skeletonized, with the leaflets missing but the petiole is intact then you have an insect problem. If not I’d look at fertilizing the tree.

      The only pruning I’d consider is to remove dead, damaged and crossed branches (the latter being typical of the awry leopard tree growth form) unless the tree is diseased.

      Kindly,

      David.

  17. says

    Can you please tell me if the seeds are safe to eat by parrots.
    I do not want to kill my babies, but the seeds look like good toys for them.
    Your help truly appreciates.
    Kind regards

    • David Taylor says

      Hi, Anne-Marie. It’s not listed as toxic on any of the usual lists but I can’t guarantee your pet’s safety of course.

  18. Mick says

    Hi David, I have a 15 – 20 metre Leopard tree hanging over my pool, the neighbours pool and perched above a retaining wall. We applied to have it chopped down but were denied on the basis that it was such a perfect specimen. The council quoted a 1960’s NSW (I’m in Brisbane) case in which the magistrate states ‘a little extra garden care is not too excessive to maintain the street appeal of the neighbour hood. To say I was a little peeved is an understatement. The tree is beautiful and in the right situation I love the Leopard tree but this one almost makes us want to move. It drops debris into the pools and garden beds all year round. If it’s not flowers it’s bark, or if it’s not the pods it’s the leaves or flower stems. So my solution, prune the hell out of it so we can control it. Is there a market in Brisbane for the wood?

    Thanks for the above article, it was very informative and interesting.

    Mick

    • David Taylor says

      That’s a pretty ridiculous decision from council. I suggest you have another arborist or me give them a phone call for you. I’ve found they tend to accept common sense when I put the facts to them from a professional point of view. Further, the way you are pruning it probably means it now has no value to your neighbourhood unless you know what you are doing: it’s probably not a perfect specimen anymore. It’s always best to call an arborist in before talking to the council, by the way.

      Sorry, the cost of processing the trees’ trunk leaves little room to make money from the timber. It’s not a commercial part of our business, just part of our philosophy to be involved in the whole life of trees and to maximise their use. It also helps to retain the carbon they have captured in their life which is good for the environment.

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