Brachychiton acerifolius: No Shrinking Violet

Australia is known for its vast array of interesting plants. Among them are 30-plus species and natural hybrids of the genus Brachychiton. Some of those species make small trees with modest floral characteristics. But B. acerifolius is decidedly not made in that mold. Perhaps this species’ common name––Illawarra Flame Tree––provides a clue to its flowering traits. When in bloom during the dry season, its scarlet flowers have no problem attracting attention from a distance. Often this show occurs when the tree is semi-bare; its degree of deciduousness is related to the level of winter rainfall.

B. acerifolius is native along subtropical portions of Australia’s east coast from New South Wales northward into Queensland. That means, among other things, that mature specimens are normally able to tolerate temperatures down into the mid-20s. Although the species can reach significant heights in deeper soils within its native habitat, it usually tops out in the 30-35 ft. range in southern Florida.

The Illawarra Flame Tree’s attributes are not confined to its flowering habits. It is not only reasonably fast-growing, but also long-lived. Specimens in Australia last for 50-150 years. Portions of its trunk remain green for a long time, and the bark finally turns light gray in later years. The foliage is also quite attractive. The species name, acerifolius, means maple-like, and, indeed, its leaves can be deeply-lobed like those of the beautiful temperate zone genus Acer.

B. acerifolius should be grown in full sun in soil that drains well. Good pruning practices will reap great benefits. They include making cuts every three years to guarantee a dominant leader by eliminating competing leaders. (It is only coincidence that this sounds like the description of a political dictatorship.) It is also wise to anticipate which of the lower branches might create obstacles as the tree’s stature increases. It is better to remove such branches while their diameters are still relatively small.

While this species responds well to ample moisture, once established it is drought-tolerant. To enhance blooming, use a fertilizer formulated for flowering and fruit trees, i.e., one with substantial phosphorus.

The Illawarra Flame Tree can be found at Richard Lyons’ Nursery in 15-gal. containers.

Iochroma: A Very Down-to-Earth Plant

What are the odds that a plant native to elevations more than a mile above sea level in the Andes could grow well in southern Florida? Probably no better than for the lion to lie down with the lamb. But, amazingly, Iochroma cyanea beats those odds.

I. cyanea is endemic to the Ecuadorean Andes in the range between 5,850 and 8,125 ft. above sea level. By anyone’s definition, that’s cold country. Yet studies conducted at the USDA’s National Germplasm Repository in Miami demonstrated that various cultivars of the species are remarkably amenable to the lowland hot, steamy climate of southern Florida.

I. cyanea is a fast-growing shrub that matures to 4-5 ft. tall. Both its leaves and young stems are soft and pubescent, or fuzzy. Stems turn from green to gray-green with age. The plant’s pubescence alone gives this species good ornamental value, but its blooming characteristics are what make it special. Its flowers are long, tubular and pendulous, clustered in groups of 5-20 at branch tips, and in our region the species stays in bloom virtually year-round.

Iochroma is at its showiest when grown in full sun. It should be planted in good organic material. Ample moisture is important, but watering can be reduced during the winter months. Regular fertilization with a ‘palm special’ fertilizer is also recommended. It is advisable to prune plants back annually by one-third to one-half. That practice not only works as a check on the species’ rapid growth, but encourages even more prolific blooms since its flowers develop on new wood.

I. cyanea also performs well as a container plant. When a potted specimen becomes rootbound, it can develop woody stems and start to lose lower leaves. However, the plant can be reinvigorated by cutting the stems back hard to just a few nodes, and thinning the dense rootball before repotting it in a fresh soil mix.

Richard Lyons’ Nursery grows 3-gal. Iochroma cultivars that produce either pale blue or red flowers.

Madre de Cacao: A True Multi-Tasker

The pea (Fabaceae) family of plants is not only among the largest in the world––at about 19,000 species––but also one of the most useful to humanity. And within that distinguished family, Madre de Cacao (Gliricidia sepium) may well be the second-most significant species, behind only the Lead Tree (Leucaena leucocephala).

G. sepium has its origins in tropical dry forests of Mexico and Central America, but, because of its versatility, it has been distributed to tropical regions around the world. Here are some of the attributes that make this tree so popular:

A fast-growing and leafy species, it was planted by the Aztecs to provide shade for cacao plantations. That application is the source of the common name Madre de Cacao. Over centuries, it has also come to be used to shade coffee, tea and vanilla plants.

The tree’s nitrogen-fixing properties make it valuable to the improvement of agricultural soils.

Its ability to root just from cuttings has made G. sepium a major source of living fenceposts. Straight-growing cuttings placed close together provide an inexpensive source of fencing material. That quality is the source for another of its common names: quickstick.

The tree’s dense wood not only renders it an excellent, virtually smokeless, source of fuel, but also makes it valuable for manufacturing into tool handles, furniture and even more demanding construction-related implements.

The leaves and bark of G. sepium are used in some countries to treat skin diseases in humans. It is also said that constituents of the tree are effective in combating ulcers, headaches, fever and tumors.

There are reports of G. sepium being utilized to eradicate rodents or to kill or suppress insects and fungi.

The leaves of Madre de Cacao provide an excellent, protein-rich source of fodder for certain livestock, particularly goats.

Now, dear homeowner, we at Richard Lyons’ Nursery recognize that you may have opted not to raise a goat herd in your backyard––and you are well within your rights to live with that deprivation––so you might wonder what benefits would accrue to you for planting a specimen of G. sepium in your yard. The answer is that, besides its many utilitarian applications, it is also a very nice ornamental tree.

While a vigorous grower, Madre de Cacao does not become very tall, ranging in height from 6-33 ft. It has a smooth trunk, with whitish to gray-brown coloration. In its wintertime flowering season, it produces clusters of pinkish blossoms or white depending on the cultivar. If not provided supplemental irrigation during rainless parts of the winter, it will behave as a deciduous species. It is tolerant of alkaline soils and drought, and it will leaf out vigorously after being cut back hard.

G. sepium is available in several sizes at Richard Lyons’ Nursery.


Featuring the Monkeypod Tree (Monkeys Not Included)

One of the outstanding ornamental trees on earth is Albizia saman. Native from northern South America through Central America, and perhaps into the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, it has been distributed into the Old World tropics and climatic niches as far north as Hawaii. So popular is it that it has accumulated a host of common names, but it is perhaps best known as the Monkeypod Tree or Rain Tree. Along the way, botanists have moved it from the genus Samanea to the genus Albizia, making it a relative of the Mimosa (A. julibrissin), a tree well-known to anyone who has spent a summer in the southern U.S.

A. saman is a very broad, symmetrical tree that can attain impressive proportions when grown in rich, deep soils. While Alexander von Humboldt was in the midst of exploring the Americas for several years starting in 1799, he came upon a huge specimen near Maracay, Venezuela. He measured the wondrous discovery. Though it was only 60 ft. high, the diameter of the trunk was 9 ft. and the circumference of the crown was 576 ft. In 1933 the tree, known as Samán de Güere, was officially made a national monument. By 1950, it was in a state of deterioration, having been sullied by lightning strikes and other insults. Preservation efforts kept it going a long time, but a storm in September 2000 knocked over the rotting trunk.

Another notable A. saman, located on the island of Tobago, was used in the 1960 filming of the movie Swiss Family Robinson as the host of the family’s treehouse. The tree, still alive, was said to be 200 ft. tall, but that figure may have reflected a degree of studio hype.

In southern Florida, the Monkeypod Tree is a much more modest plant, thanks to the region’s nutrient-poor soils. The state champion A. saman (as of August 2012), located at Montgomery Botanical Center in Coral Gables, is 50 ft. high and has a crown circumference of just 123 ft.

A. saman is fast-growing and easy to cultivate. The breadth of its crown makes it an ideal shade tree. Its small, pink, powder puff-like flowers are most prolific when the tree is grown in full sun. It responds well to regular irrigation, so long as the planting site is well-drained. Where there is a strong seasonal reduction of rainfall, the tree is known to be semi-deciduous.

The Monkeypod Tree is not only a prized ornamental plant, but is also valued in many places for its wood. Shrinkage is minimal, and its dark brown heartwood polishes up well. The wood is amenable to carving and is used to manufacture musical instruments and furniture. It is employed as both plywood and veneer.

A. saman is available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery 15-gal. containers.

Have we finally found Mrs. Calabash?

Students of television history know that entertainer Jimmy Durante closed his weekly variety program with the cryptic message, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” Theories abounded as to whom, or what, the salutation applied. Durante’s first wife? A restaurant in North Carolina? An old flame?

We at Richard Lyons’ Nursery are sad to report that, despite exhaustive research by our Trivia Department, we don’t have a clue as to the true identity of Mrs. Calabash, but we do know about the Calabash Tree, and we think you should, too.

Known botanically as Crescentia cujete, the Calabash Tree is native to lowland habitats of Central and South America, but has been cultivated around the New World tropics for thousands of years. It is now grown in tropical lands worldwide. Its popularity is owed to a couple of features. First, it is ornamentally interesting. It produces flowers directly on the plant’s stems, a trait known as cauliflory. The gourd-like, nearly round fruits that follow can reach about a foot in diameter. While developing, the fruits are soft and can be coaxed into unusual forms, but eventually they develop a hard, thin shell.

The Calabash Tree grows slowly and may eventually reach 20-30 ft. in our region. It features long, spreading branches that, combined with the plant’s cauliflory, impart a distinctive, easy-recognizable appearance. As an added attraction, the tree’s rough bark makes it ideal for supporting epiphytes, including bromeliads, orchids and ferns.

Another feature accounting for the popularity of C. cujete is its utility to humans. For example, the mature fruits are made into bowls, cups, and rattles, and larger shells tend to be used as storage containers. The tree’s wood is sufficiently dense to be incorporated into tools, stirrups, and vehicle parts, and it has some construction applications.

The calabash also has a role in folk medicine. It is said that various plant parts are processed to treat headaches, colds, pneumonia, intestinal woes, asthma, wounds, and toothaches.

Homeowners will find this species easy to grow. It prefers a sunny exposure and ample water. It is not particular about soil type––the alkaline soils of our region are no challenge––provided that there is good drainage. Richard Lyons’ Nursery grows these trees in 15-gal. containers.

By the way, C. cujete has hermaphroditic flowers, so it is at least conceivable that it could have produced either a Mrs. Calabash or a Mr. Calabash. Durante probably didn’t know that.