A Brief Look at Caesalpinia

Caesalpinia is one of the more interesting genera of ornamental trees belonging to the pea family, known botanically as Fabaceae. There is considerable disagreement about the number of species in the genus – it’s somewhere between 70 and 165 – but Richard Lyons’ Nursery will acquaint you with three that have proven desirable and reliable in our part of the world.

Caesalpinia echinata – Brazilwood, or Pau-Brasil, has garnered world-wide fame for the quality of its dense heartwood, which has long been crafted into bows for musical instruments. It is also known for its red dye, brazilin. So important was Brazilwood commercially in the early 16th century that its native land came to be named for it. The name Brasileiros is now used for the citizens of the country, but originally it was the name applied to the people who collected the dyewood. C. echinata was once abundant in a lengthy stretch along the coast of Brazil, but has disappeared from most of its native range and is now rated Endangered by the IUCN. The tree reaches about 55 ft. at maturity in its homeland, but can be expected to top out at something less than that in southern Florida. Under its brown exfoliating bark is the prized blood-red heartwood. Its flowers, usually yellow with a dark red blotch, are very fragrant. Small thorns cover the branches, leaves and fruit.

Caesalpinia granadillo – The Bridalveil Tree is another Caesalpinia species which produces an attractive exfoliating bark. In fact, the tree is valued not so much for its yellow flowers as for its bark and vase-like growth habit. The smooth brown bark peels off to reveal the cream-colored surface underneath. In southern Florida, the Bridalveil reaches 25-30 ft. at maturity, producing a dense crown of finely-textured pinnate leaves that creates the lacy look responsible for the tree’s common name. The small leaflets ensure that no messy litter accumulates under the tree.

C. granadillo in its early years benefits from strategic pruning to improve its structure and exhibit its trunk to best advantage. In fact, early attention prevents having to cut undesired branches later on, when pruning wounds would be more noticeable. Given a full-sun exposure, the Bridalveil Tree is a very undemanding plant. It can grow well in a wide variety of soils, so long as they are well-drained, and it is moderately drought-tolerant. If that weren’t enough, the species is virtually pest-free.

Caesalpinia pulcherrima – This variable species is commonly known as the Pride of Barbados, Peacock Flower, or, inaccurately, Dwarf Poinciana. It has become widespread in the tropics, but its origin was probably the West Indies and northern South America. It flowers prolifically, and the more common hues of its 2-in. blooms are orange-red, yellow, white and pink.

The ultimate appearance of this species depends on the attention given to it. If the owner does judi-cious pruning, C. pulcherrima can be groomed into a tree reaching around 20 ft. tall. If the owner has a more laissez faire approach, the plant will become a fairly sprawling shrub to about 10-12 ft. For best flowering, the Pride of Barbados should be planted in full sun, though it can handle some shade. It is not particular about soil. Because of its spines, the plant should be located on sites not close to foot traffic. Despite the tropical origin of C. pulcherrima, it can be grown even in some places where it freezes to the ground in the winter, because roots are said to be able to survive 15° nights and regenerate in the spring.

The Remarkable Tamarind Tree

Today Richard Lyons’ Nursery takes a look at the Tamarind Tree. At first glance, Tamarindus indica would seem to be a strange appellation for this wondrous tropical tree. After all, it’s native not to India, but to tropical Africa. So this nomenclatural dysfunction must just be the result of some sloppy botany, right? Well, it’s not as simple as that. Actually the tamarind is a good example of a plant so valuable to humankind that it was long ago distributed to other lands where it naturalized, ultimately coming to be considered native. So strongly did the Tamarind Tree come to being associated with India that when it reached Persia and Arabia, it was called ‘tamar hindi,’ or Indian date. From that erroneous term emerged the name tamarind!

Let’s dig a little deeper into what makes Tamarindus indica so alluring. For starters, it makes a very attractive shade tree. It is characterized by a stocky, short trunk which supports a broad, dome-like crown. In some places around the world, it reaches 80-100 ft. in height, but in southern Florida 50 ft. is more common for mature trees. It has a moderate growth rate. The branches of older trees take on a drooping habit. Of particular value in our area is the high wind resistance of the tamarind’s trunks and branches. The crown is densely foliated with fairly delicate, bright green, pinnate leaflets. Except during the driest of winters, the tree remains evergreen.

Another endearing trait of the tamarind in southern Florida is its ability to tolerate a great variety of soils, both alkaline and acidic, so long as good drainage is provided. Once established, the tree is reasonably drought-tolerant.

Though the Tamarind Tree flowers during the warm season, its blossoms are pale yellow and incon-spicuous. The real show is provided by its fruit pods, velvety structures about 6 in. long that are colored cinnamon brown or gray-brown. The pods are commonly fed to livestock, but because the raw fruit is both sweet and very acidic, humans enjoy it best once it is processed. Cooked pods – from immature to fully ripe – have very significant uses in tropical cuisine. The pulp surrounding the seeds has a major role in the preparation of various curries and chutneys, as well as certain brands of Worcestershire sauce. In both the Old World and New World, a beverage – tamarind ade – has long been made from the fruit. In more recent times it has been concocted as a carbonated drink. The pulp is also made into jelly, jam, ice cream and sherbet. Tamarind syrup is a popular product in Puerto Rico.

Tamarindus indica is also valuable medicinally. The pulp has a number of applications, including as a liniment, an anti-inflammatory, a digestive aid, and a sore throat gargle. Likewise, leaves, flowers, roots, bark and seeds have been incorporated into various remedies.

The dense, insect-resistant wood of the tamarind, despite being hard to work, is popular in the manu-facture of furniture, paneling, gears, tool handles, and boat planking.

With all its excellent characteristics, the tamarind is as close to bullet-proof for our region as any tree we grow. When you visit the nursery, you’ll find this remarkable plant in 1-, 3- and 15-gal. pots.

The Seminole Pumpkin

Seminole Pumpkin (Cucurbita moshata) is called the wild squash of the Everglades.  This is a native Florida pumpkin which the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes cultivated before the Spaniards arrived in the 1500’s.  They would plant the seeds at the base of dead trees and allow the vine to grow upward with the fruit hanging down from the dead branches.  The Native Americans called it ‘Chasse howitska’, meaning Hanging Pumpkin.

This pumpkin is small in size, but was highly prized for making ‘pumpkin bread’ among the Seminole and Miccosukee people. These bread recipes can be obtained online, although they are more like a fritter than bread.

Most of our vegetables are grown in the winter when the humidity/rainfall is much lower thus limiting the chances of powdery mildew and insect problems.  However, this pumpkin is heat tolerant as well as resistant to powdery mildew, and its hard outer skin makes it difficult for insects to penetrate, thus allowing it to grow throughout the summer months.

For whatever reason, most people lost interest in growing this native pumpkin over the years.  Richard Lyons’ Nursery has planted several seeds in an attempt to make this pumpkin popular again.

Stay tuned for growth updates throughout the summer, and photo documentation.

A Few More Words About Rainfall

Thirty years ago I had a neighbor who long before had been a writer for The Miami News. In 1926, her boss gave her a plum assignment – the lead story in the women’s section of the issue for Sunday, September 19. The young reporter chose to write a piece about home remodeling, ordinarily an upbeat topic. But on the day before her story ran, Miami was hit by the unforgettable hurricane whose eye passed directly over the city. My neighbor was embarrassed by the fact that her advice on remodeling might seem to be trivializing the plight of storm victims, many of whom now lived in buildings left looking like dollhouses, sides ripped off for all to peek into.

This was clearly an instance of inadvertent bad timing, and last weekend there was a little bit of that on this website. While we were preparing an article with advice on how to deal with the drought, the skies opened up, and at Richard Lyons’ Nursery it rained hard two more times that day. And rain fell again the next several days! It appeared that our drought might be ending, but dry conditions have returned. This might be a good time, then, to take a little closer look at rainfall patterns in southern Florida, so that you might be better apprised of those times of year when you need to pay special attention to irrigation.

As mentioned last week, the rainy season in southern Florida comprises parts or all of six months. Rainfall patterns here are like those found in much of the Caribbean Basin, where traditionally dual peaks occur during the rainy season. In our region, for many years those peaks have been May-June and September-October. But something has changed over the past 35 years or so. Now the peaks are more closely spaced. The rainfall totals for June-July (16.17 in Miami, 16.14 in Ft. Lauderdale) and August-September (18.74 in Miami, 16.03 in Ft. Lauderdale) now exceed those of May-June and September-October.

But one thing has remained relatively constant: July is the driest of the months entirely within the rainy season, and that leads to a very stressful time for plants. According to the National Weather Service, normal rainfall this month is 6.50 in. in Miami and 5.98 in. in Ft. Lauderdale. That would be nearly record-breaking in a place like El Paso, Texas, but it is fairly light in a region where so many tropical ornamental plants are grown. The risk is that, even in a typical July, we often experi-ence a stretch of five days or so in which no rainfall occurs, and that can devastate containerized material. So homeowners must keep an eye peeled toward signs of drying in their special plants.

It is also important to know the rainfall patterns for the rest of the year, because the low rainfall and breezy conditions of the dry season also impose the need to monitor plants, whether inground or containerized, for moisture loss. Following is the complete list of National Weather Service monthly rainfall averages for Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, respectively, covering the period 1980-2010. Even though annual rainfall during that time actually increased over historical norms, to 61.15 in Miami and 62.18 in. in Ft. Lauderdale, the continued low levels of dry-season precipitation underscore the necessity for diligence in watering practices.

January                   1.62                  3.63

February                 2.25                   2.96

March                     2.25                   3.36

April                       3.14                   2.89

May                        5.34                   4.65

June                       9.67                  10.16

July                        6.50                    5.98

August                    8.88                    7.44

September              9.86                    8.59

October                  6.33                    6.82

November               3.27                    3.24

December               2.04                    2.46