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.