March 2014 ● African Tulip Tree

Planting Roots in Mexico by Tommy Clarkson • March 2014


Planting Roots in Mexico – African Tulip Tree

African Tulip Tree (Spathodeacampanulata) Family: Bignoniacea
(Also known as Tulipán, Fountain Tree, Nandi Flame, Flame of the Forest, Indian Cedar, Scarlet Bell Tree, Flame Tree or Santo Dominga Mahogany.)

To put the appearance of this disease-resistant tree in perspective, my botanical mentor, Robert Lee Riffle, has written that this is the second most beautiful tree in the world – following the Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia)!

Purportedly discovered in 1787, its botanical name comes from the Greek words “spathe” and “oida” which refer to the spathe-like calyx. Horticulturally and botanically distinct, it is the only species in its genus. And in one last “just in case you’re interested” bit of information, in the Bignoniaceae family, the Tulip Tree is related to the Catalpas, Jacarandas and Trumpet-Vines.

Native to equatorial Africa – I bet you already figured that out from its name – the showy African Tulip Tree, stretched as tall as possible on its tippy-toe roots, can grow to over 75 feet (nearly 23 meters) in height … but may be trimmed back in smaller gardens. It is fast growing – in but one year, measured trees have increased their height by three feet and trunk diameter by as much as two inches. With a life span of anywhere from 50 to 150 years, it is evergreen in moister environs but may lose its leaves in drier conditions.

Planting Roots in Mexico – African Tulip Tree

Planting Roots in Mexico – African Tulip Tree

In maturity it forms a broad-topped, vase-shaped, over 40 feet wide, crown made up of a few large branches above a smooth, light-colored, high branching trunk with bark of light to dark grey, furrowed and rough or scaly. Obviously, as a result of its size it may best be located in more open landscapes and, unless one is seeking dense shade, it generally is not suited for small residences.

Its dense, branch end, clusters of large, brilliant (generally red-orange, sometimes with a yellow rim) tulip-shaped flowers are quite attractive when placed against the backdrop of its dark green, pinnate, compound 18-24 inch (46-61 cm) leaves, comprised of odd numbered (generally 11-17) 4-inch (10 cm) leaflets.

Opening, several at a time, from curved, two inch (5 cm) long, fuzzy brown flower buds filled with water (more on these later) are its blossoms. Their flowering heads present themselves in circular masses with packed buds on the outer portion of the head opening together, surrounding the inner buds. Beyond them – even though there are not that many branches – the canopy of the Spathodea campanulata seems to be rather dense as a result of the large leaves.

Planting Roots in Mexico – African Tulip Tree

Planting Roots in Mexico – African Tulip Tree

Those dramatic blossoms are followed by long, boat-shaped wood capsule pods which open to release copious numbers of winged seeds. (Now, that having been said, this tree can propagate via runners, cuttings or air-layering as well!)

There is also a rarer orange-yellow variety (‘Kona Gold’). Both it and the bright red Spathodea prefer more fertile soil that is well draining with full sun and a moderate amount of moisture. But once established, it is nearly care free. One down side is that the fire-resistant wood (with an odor somewhat reminiscent of garlic) is rather brittle and, hence, subject to breakage in stronger winds. Beyond that, they are not good candidates as a beach tree having low salt tolerance.

Children in some locales enjoy squeezing the unopened buds in order to produce a stream of water much like that from a squirt gun! For the older (or should that read “quirkier”) set, if you’ve a penchant for the sartorial fringe, the frilly flowers make extremely unique and colorful hanky-like pocket ornaments!
While widely naturalized in Latin American and the southern part of Florida, not all share in our enthusiasm for this tree as it is considered an invasive species in Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Australia!

With that degree of negativism notwithstanding, for those who have the time, inclination and perspicacity to start from “scratch” here’s what you might just wish to do. Capture your own ripening African Tulip Tree seeds by loosely securing a paper bag over a seed pod with a piece of string. Each of these pods hold up to 500 seeds. In that same paper bag, dry these seeds by placing them in a warm and airy location, out of direct sunlight, for 30 days. After that, transfer them to a labeled and dated, opaque container with a tight lid for long-term storage where – properly dried – they will remain viable for years … something I heartily aspire to as well!

In Manzanillo, visit Ola Brisa Gardens, Tommy and Patty’s verdant, multi-terraced tropical paradise nestled on a hill overlooking the magnificent vista of Santiago Bay. Leisurely meander its curved, paved path, experiencing, first hand, a delicious array of palms, plants and flowers from all over the world. Or, e-mail questions to him at For back issues of “Roots”, gardening tips, tropical plant book reviews and videos of numerous, highly unique eco/adventure/nature tours, as well as memorable “Ultimate Experiences” such a Tropical Garden Brunches and Spa Services, please visit

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