Monday, February 16, 2009

Erythrina caffra (Coast coral-tree)

To kick off 2009, we focus on the incredibly striking and ever-popular Erythrina caffra. This spectacular tree is ideal for those who wish to enjoy the benefits of a sculptural, striking and colourful accent within the landscape during late winter and spring and who wish to enjoy cool, filtered shade in summer. The E.caffra is naturally found in sub-tropical surroundings, however as many of you already know – this tree is adaptable to drier conditions provided a thorough deep watering is given on a relatively regular basis. Some of the pictures used within our newsletter this month were taken last year when our E.caffra’s were in full flower – they look absolutely stunning so give us a call should you wish to place your order.


Botanical Name: Erythrina caffra Thunb.
Common Name: Coast Coral-tree
Genus: Papilionoideae (subfamily of Fabaceae)
RSA National Tree No’: 242


Erythrina caffra is the ideal tree to use within rock gardens or where a striking accent plant is required. The trees provide ideal filtered shade for a host of herbaceous and perennial shrubs. Shrubs that are particularly suited to planting with the E.caffra include the Plectranthus eckloni; Hypoestes aristata; Mackaya bella; Ochna serrulata; Burchellia bulbalina; Tetradinia ripariea and Strelitzia reginae. To obtain multiple colours using bulbs underneath these spectacular trees, good bulbous plants for mass planting include
Scadoxus multiflorus subsp. Katharinae, Crinum moorei, Clivia miniata, Dietes bicolor, Crocosmia aurea, Kniphofia praecox, and K.uvaria. Their roots are also substantial so if they are to be grown near sidewalks, driveways or foundations root barriers are a must.


Height: Medium sized tree that typically grows to 9-12m in height and which under favourable conditions will grow to 20m.
Spread: This species forms a round-headed, spreading canopy of around 4 – 8m.
Deciduous/Evergreen: Deciduous
Growth Habit: Occurs naturally in coastal forest and riverine fringe forest.
Bark: The bark is grey with short sharp prickles that grow into larger thorns on older bark. As the branches age and grow these thorns wear off.
Foliage: The leaves are typically trifoliate (three leaflets), which are broadly ovate (egg-shaped) to elliptic (oval and narrowed to rounded ends, widest at or about the middle), the terminal leaflet being the largest.
Flowers: The flowers are spectacular and are usually orange to scarlet and occasionally cream in colour. The flowers are carried in large clusters at the ends of thick, fleshy stalks and blossom between August and September before the leaves sprout. The contrast between the striking flowers and grey bark, have a particularly sculptural, dramatic effect. The flower itself has a short, broad petal, the lower half of which curves upward to expose the stamens.
Fruit: Brown cylindrical pods which release red 'lucky' beans.
Seed: The pods split to release small, shiny, coral-red seeds which are marked on one side with a black spot. As the seeds mature they turn a rich red-brown. The seeds are popularly hollowed out and filled with tiny carved Elephants which are sold as curios in South Africa.


Growing regions: Erythrina caffra is classed as a subtropical tree which naturally occurs in the warm and frost-free to light frost coastal regions of the Eastern Cape and northern KwaZulu-Natal. The trees are found in various soil types from wet, well-drained, humus-rich soils to dry, clayey soils.
Growing conditions: Erythrina caffra should be planted in a sunny position. They will tolerate dry conditions and poor soils; however they do not respond well to excessively cold conditions. When used for commercial landscaping – E.caffra responds best to occasional deep watering and good drainage.
Best season: Spring - Autumn
Hardiness: Requires regular watering but can tolerate drought.
Propagation: The Coast Coral tree is easily cultivated from seeds and cuttings.
Growth rate: The Erythrina caffra trees grow very quickly and can develop a substantial trunk in just a couple of years.


The generic name Erythrina, originates from the Greek word erythros which means red and alludes to the bright red flowers and seeds. "Caffra" is derived from the Arabic word for an unbeliever and when used in older botanical works generally indicates that the plant was found well to the south of the range of Arab traders (primarily along the south-eastern seaboard of South Africa). Carl Thunberg, who is also known as the father of South African botany, gave the tree its name in 1770. All South African erythrinas are noticeable and well established in cultivation primarily for their striking flowers. The red seeds of the E.caffra are popular as the traditional ‘lucky bean’. Medicinally, the bark is laid on raw to treat arthritis and rheumatism, boiled to ease toothache, and burnt to heal open wounds. Crushed leaves are applied to festering sores, whilst an infusion from them relieves earache.

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