Today in Key West: African Tulip Tree

Ah, the tropics: With plenty of heat and sun year-round, no wonder many plants grow high and huge in a hurry. Plus—this being the tropics, remember—many of these same plants flower spectacularly and for months on end. So far, so good, except that the flowers of such fast-growing plants often can't be seen up close without using a ladder, cherry picker, or

—as below—telephoto lens.


Spathodea campanulata cluster 022516 cropped 640 


These are blooms of the African tulip tree, Spathodea campanulata. Each is as big as my palm (and that's big); the whole cluster could be eighteen inches across.


Can Spathodea come into flower when only seven feet tall, not forty or fifty? And in a container that leaves a greenhouse only in late Spring to be the star of a certain garden in New England ?


Shathodea campanulata overall 022516 640


Maybe. While Spathodea is evergreen in pure tropics, in less-than-sweltering climes it drops its leaves at the arrival of cool weather and doesn't leaf out again until warmth returns months later. Being leafless and dormant all Winter long is always a help for overwintering in an already-crowded greenhouse: Those bare branches don't need direct sun themselves, and don't cast shade on other plants that do.


African tulip trees outdoors year-round in Santa Barbara live happily on this schedule and, as a result of the prolonged dormancy, usually don't flower until late Summer. That's perfect timing for the gardening season in New England, when September is (or should be) the garden's peak.


No one else seems to give a second glance at this African tulip tree in Key West, but a Spathodea in bloom in Rhode Island might make headlines. At the least, when it first showed buds, we'd schedule one of our biggest dinner parties to celebrate its flowering a couple of weeks later. 


I'll profile this tree when I can photograph flowers of my own containered specimen.


Here's another spectacular leafless-in-cool-weather tropical tree, Jacaranda mimosifolia. I grow a pair in containers, and they flower with enthusiasm with the dormant-all-winter treatment I'm eager to try with Spathodea.

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