All Hail the Most Beautiful Tree in the World
Many people consider the royal poinciana, Delonix regia, the most beautiful flowering tree in the world. Hardly any other can surpass a leafless poinciana in full bloom.
Poincianas are buttressed, thick-trunked trees that form wide-spreading, umbrella canopies. Large trees can be more than 40 feet tall and spread wider than 60 feet. Their fine leaflets create dense shade for much of the year, and their large root systems make them difficult to garden under. Their leaves fall during South Florida’s dry winter and spring seasons. They seem to perpetually shed leaflets and small branches, and they drop much bigger ones or can break up in hurricanes.
Despite this landscaping mayhem, there’s a big payoff. In warm, wet, year-round summer climates, poincianas display their fabulous flowers sparingly against a profuse green background. In South Florida, however, flowering occurs in late spring or early summer at the end of the dry season. The trees are nearly leafless then. If grown in an area where building and streetlights don’t interfere with their bloom cycle, they are covered in a spectacular display of bright red or orange-red flowers.
In Haiti and other parts of the French-speaking tropics they are called flamboyant. In Cuba, flamboyan. In other English-speaking countries, flame trees. A more flamboyant flame tree is not to be found in the plant kingdom.
Wild poincianas are found off the coast of Africa, in north and western Madagascar. In the wild, the trees grow in seasonally dry forests, which are under threat from habitat destruction. They are nearly ubiquitous in all suitable tropical and subtropical regions that rarely experience frost. Poincianas are adaptable trees that will grow in climates varying from deserts to rainforests, as long as sufficient soil moisture is available for them to grow new leaves every year.
As members of the legume family, they are efficient at fixing nutrients at their roots and don’t need much fertilization. They don’t need any supplemental irrigation in South Florida, other than what’s necessary to establish newly planted trees. They are so tenacious that, in northern Australia, they have become a pest species that invades natural habitats.
If allowed to grow in neglected landscapes, poinciana seedlings will germinate without any human assistance. They aren’t on any invasive species list in Florida, but should be planted with care and supervision near hammock and pine rockland areas.
Poincianas are best appreciated as street plantings or in public parks. An individual specimen can look especially nice in a mulched bed where the tree’s perpetual litter can drop without landscaping worries. If you’re willing to give one enough open space, even the most novice gardener can take pride in growing the most beautiful tree in the world.
Harvey Bernstein is the horticulturist at Pinecrest Gardens.