by Kathy Nelson
Last November, Wae and I had the pleasure of visiting Pine Island on the west coast of Florida. We had such a good time that we wanted our trip to last a little longer, so we headed north along the Gulf coast. After a brief stop in Venice and at Historic Spanish Point, we took a sentimental journey to Longboat Key, west of Sarasota, where Wae lolled away some of the best days of his youth.
We were enjoying a perfect fall day in a beautiful place when suddenly something caught our eye. What were those spectacular flowering trees? Turn the car around and get out the camera!
We were stunned by what we quickly decided could only be African tulip trees. We had seen one before - in the parking lot of a local donut and coffee shop. (We went there just to see their tropical plants - honest!) But we never saw it blooming like these trees, and we heard that it was severely damaged during one of our recent hurricanes. (As Stephen Brown says on page 9, they have weak branches that are prone to break in high winds.)
Of course, these trees were growing in a place pampered both by climate and affluence and looked it. When we got home, I thought I might order one over the Internet. Sure enough, Top Tropicals in Davie offers them, along with good information and photos. But in the end I was afraid to try one here in zone 9 where frost is a perennial problem (they are recommended for zones 10B-11), and hurricane winds fresh in our memories.
Spathodea campanulata comes from tropical Africa and is planted for both shade and decoration throughout the tropics. Other common names include flame of the forest for its fiery flowers, and fountain tree because, if squeezed, the buds will send out a stream of water.
Reaching up to 50 feet tall, it is evergreen in south Florida and semi-deciduous in central Florida. The fruit is inconspicuous and does not attract wildlife. It can be, as Mom used to say, a "messy tree," dropping twigs, flowers, and seeds. And because the seeds germinate easily, it is also considered potentially weedy. (Some trees never produce seeds.)
I doubt if any of its bad qualities could have stopped us from wanting one, though, after seeing it in flower. It's hard to believe that those magnificent clusters of orange and crimson flowers, fringed in gold and set against deep-green foliage, were only the secondary winter bloom. The spring flowering in March and April is said to be even more breathtaking.