Pretty red flowers on a small tree, the flowers upturned or curved like crescents. Called coral trees or coral bean, the genus is Erythrina in the pea family, Fabaceae, and they are found all around the tropical world.
My most recent encounter with a coral tree was with Erythrina crista-galli, the cockspur coral tree (crista-galli is Latin for cock's comb) in Argentina, where, called ceibo, it is the national flower. Cockspur coral tree is native to northern Argentina and nearby areas in Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil. It is the national flower of Uruguay, as well.
Which tells you how spectacular the cockspur coral tree is in flower.
|cock spur coral tree, Erythrina crista-galli|
Cockspur coral tree flowers in the subtropical summer, which is October to April in the Southern Hemisphere. In Argentina it is celebrated on the Day of the National Flower, November 22.
Another species of coral tree, coastal coral tree or South African coral tree, Erythrina caffra, is the official tree of the city of Los Angeles, California. As the name indicates, it is from southern Africa. See photos link
There are approximately 130 species of Erythrina with at least one species native to all the regions around the tropics. I have a collection of plant books and I found different species in Baja California, Costa Rica, Argentina, the southeastern United States, Africa, India, China, Australia and Hawaii. For example see plants from South Africa (link), India link, and Australia (link).
The name Erythrina comes from a Greek word for red, erythros, the same stem as the word for red blood cells, erythrocytes. Its worldwide distribution means there are dozens of common names in dozens of languagues.
Flowers of the various species range from red through orange, although a few species' flowers are white. Most are pollinated by nectar-feeding birds which reach into the long tubes for nectar. Hummingbirds hover, so the flowers of trees from Costa Rica--immediately above--could be easily visited by them. Only the New World has hovering birds, however, so Erythrina species from Asia and Africa generally are arranged to allow birds to perch when taking nectar. See for example Los Angeles' Erythrina caffra link. And out of 130, there are doubtless some other pollination systems.
|Cockspur coral tree in a park in Buenos Aires, Argentina|
They can get pretty large, though nothing like the size of a large oak or a banyan
Most coral tree species are spiny, some very spiny. Most are small trees although a few are so small you would call them shrubs. The wood is light and porous, good for rafts, surfboards, model airplanes and even bottle stoppers and corks but not very good for construction. However, the branches root easily so that in tropical countries that prefer living fences such as Costa Rica, frequently they are used for fence posts, which then send down roots and grow.
|Living fence, but not coral tree--imagine the fence with brilliant red flowers!|
The fruit is a pod like a bean pod (it is in the same plant family as beans, after all) and the seeds are often bright red, easily strung as beads. (See photos link). The plants are quite toxic, especially the seeds, and have a variety of uses in folk medicines, as sedatives, to reduce fever, as anti-depressants, as an astringent and more.
Hawaii has an endemic coral tree, Erythrina sandwichensis. The Hawaiian name is wiliwili. Wili means twisted, referring to the way the seed pods twist open. The specific epithet in the scientific name, sandwichensis, means "of Hawaii." When Captain Cook, sailing for England, discovered Hawaii in 1787, he named the islands for the Earl of Sandwich, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. Hawai'i is the name the natives gave their islands, and we switched to calling them the Hawaiian Islands sometime in the 1800s.
Wiliwili is believed to be endemic to Hawaii, not brought by Polynesians, let alone by Europeans, so you have to imagine a little bean, or a bean pod, surviving the 2,300 miles of ocean to reach Hawaii. (About wiliwili: link).
|This is a big old wiliwili tree flowering on the big island of Hawaii, |
the flowers salmon colored rather than red
Comments and corrections welcome.
Duke, J.A. and R. Vasquez. 1994. Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
Herrera-Sobek, M. 2012. Celebrating Latino Folklore. An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions. ABC-CLIO publisher.
the flower expert.com link
Zuchowski, W. 2007. Tropical plants of Costa Rica. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
and the links within the post
Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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