Written by: Life Green Group and Catherine Browne
“Bright reds – scarlet, pillar-box red, crimson or cherry – are very cheerful and youthful. There is certainly a red for everyone.” – Christian Dior
Africa is home to some pretty iconic trees: the mighty and mythical baobab, the bright lime green fever tree, the fruit-baring marula tree and the charismatic sausage tree, but there is nothing quite as spectacular as the Erythrina.
Carl Thunberg, of Sweden, often regarded the ‘father of South African botany’ christened this worldwide group of 130 plus, scarlet flowering trees Erythrina in the 1770s. Erythrina derives from the Greek word erythros meaning ‘red’ and inus meaning ‘possession’ in Latin.
Erythrinas are part of the pea family, fabaceae. They are a global phenomenon and are more commonly called the coral tree or flame tree. There are species of Erythrinas that grow on the slopes of the Andes, in the Galapagos, through the South Pacific Islands all the way to Asia and the USA.
South Africa is home to species of Erythrina that occur across all climates and biomes; from prime safari territory, to botanical gardens such as Kirstenbosch, to the streets of Durban.
Because of its stunning red blossoms it is a popular domestic garden plant too, and at the Botanical Society of South Africa and Life Green Group we recommend you plant it for the birds, but make sure you choose the correct one for your garden and climate. Indigenous is always the way to go and with our country’s rich biodiversity there are always choices.
Erythrina zeyheri – Ploegbreker
The magnificent flowers of the small Erythrina zeyheri act as a red herring for its tumultuous tuber roots that give it its common name ‘ploegbreker’ – as they easily make light work of the farmer’s plough. This tough deciduous shrub can withstand veld fires and drought due to its hefty root system. The plant tends to occur in colonies and is extremely hard to get rid of when it takes hold. It likes grassland, moist vleis and clay soils of Natal, the Free State and Lesotho.
Erythrina latissimi – Broad-leaf coral tree
The broad-leaf coral tree’s scarlet flowers are a hit with bulbuls, starlings, weavers and sunbirds. Dead, the cork-like bark of the tree makes for the ideal home for woodpeckers and barbets, but it takes 100 years for the Erythrina latissimi to die as it is extremely slow growing.
In many African cultures, the coquelicot red seeds are worn to scare off evil spirits. The tree occurs along the east coast of Sourthern Africa where there is no frost. This particular type of Erythrina is known for its large leaves and impressive canopy, but it will uproot pavements so avoid putting it near buildings.
Erythrina lysistemon – The lucky bean tree
This is the most well-known of all the African coral trees because it is so attractive and brings with it an ark of animals. Black rhino, kudu, elephants and baboons love its leaves. Certain birds, bees and insects come for its iconic flowers, and it is the brown-headed parrot that disperses the tree’s lucky seeds.
Traditionally, these coral trees are planted on the graves of Zulu chiefs and is used intensively in traditional Zulu landscaping around the village and kraals. It was also one of the first trees to be used in domestic gardens in colonial times because of its flashy good looks. There are a few towns in South Africa with streets lined with the lucky bean tree, but it naturally occurs in northern South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and all the way up to Angola.
Some of the best specimens of the lucky bean tree are found in Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Cape Town.
Erythrina caffra – Coastal coral tree
The largest and most attractive Erythrina caffra occur in Addo Elephant National Park. The flowers of the coastal coral tree differ slightly from others as they have a touch of terracotta. It has become a popular garden tree in the Cape as its long-lasting winter blossoms warm the long coastal winters.
Erythrina acanthocarpa – Tamboekie thorn
The tamboekie thorn is endemic to the Eastern Cape of South Africa in the Queenstown region, but is subsequently not that common anymore. Early colonialists reported that the veld was ablaze with the burning red flowers of these coral trees when they passed through.
The scarlet flower of the Erythrina acanthocarpa is fringed with a yellow-green colour. Its Latin name is formed from the Greek word acanthrocarpa meaning thorn and karpos translating to fruit.
It is a popular plant for gardens, but like the ploegbreker, it has a large root system and will uproot infrastructures. In the past, the tamboekie thorn’s large tuber was even used to make a light summer hat. It is frost resistant and easy to grow from seeds but sadly these days it’s hard to find because of its conservation status.
Erythrina humeana – Dwarf coral tree
The dwarf coral tree is the ideal plant for a small garden, especially in dense housing complexes where green space is limited. The shrub produces an impressive display of scarlet flowers en-masse, attracting many birds which are fond of its nectar. It can tolerate harsh cold and frost by going into winter dormancy and re-sprouting from its large, swollen tuberous roots as soon as spring arrives.
The Botanical Society of South Africa’s mission is to win the hearts, minds and support of individuals and organisations for the conservation, cultivation, study and wise use of the indigenous flora and vegetation of Southern Africa. Coral trees are as important as lions and elephants.