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The African tulip tree

January 16, 2013

This time of the year Chiang Mai is full of trees with red blossom. This is the African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata, Bignoniaceae).

The tree is brittle and so not a perfect boulevard tree, but as a focal point tree in your garden it is magnificent. Although literature claims it is adapted to a dry climate, that is a relative description. To my experience it likes water and nitrogen, or it will turn gnarled and yellow. Being a native of west Africa (Ghana) and being unable to naturalize in the Chiang Mai valley further hints that without irrigation our drought is too much for it.

Since the wood is so brittle it has few other uses than as an ornamental or shade tree, but the boiled seeds are a source of arrow poison.

Spathodea campanulata.buds.72The buds are arranged in clusters. Thai children have discovered what African children have known since the dawn of mankind: a detached bud with a sectioned tip is a perfect water squirt, like marine sea squirts (Tunicata, Urochordata).

Spathodea campanulata.Jan.16.2013.72The individual flower resembles a parrot tulip, quite different from the white tulip trees of China and southeastern USA (Liriodendron spp., Magnoliaceae).

Text & Photo: Eric Danell, Dokmai Garden

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. luke permalink
    January 16, 2013 8:12 PM

    Hi Eric,
    The tulip trees in Malaysia are huge and produce masses of flowers, but I’ve never seen or been able to collect any seed all these years. What do the seed pods look like?
    Is it true that birds feeding on the nectar do the pollination?

    • January 17, 2013 9:28 AM

      Dear Luke,

      Yes, the healthy condition of these trees in the wetter Malaysia shows their preference for water.

      The fruits are dry cylindrical capsules packed with winged seeds. Indeed the flowers are pollinated by birds, and our sunbirds should do the job. Use your hands to pollinate if you get no fruits. Snails and other pests may spoil the flowers and young fruits.

      The extrafloral nectaries at the bases of the leaflets are said to attract bees, but I do not think that is their purpose although bees may benefit. I think their purpose is to attract ants, which protect the tree from pests.

      Cheers, Eric

  2. January 16, 2013 9:46 PM

    I’m all about the arrow poison! šŸ˜‰
    Wonderful photos!

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