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Erythrina lysistemon – Common Coral Tree

BOTANICAL: Erythrina Lysistemon
COMMON NAME: Common Coral tree / Sacred Coral tree / Lucky-bean tree / Coast Coral tree
OTHER NAMES: Gewone Koraal boom / Kanniedood (Afr); mokhungwane (Sotho); mophete (Tswana); muvhale (Xhosa); umsinsi (Zulu)

SA TREE NO: 245

FAMILY: Fabaceae or Leguminosae (Legume or pod-bearing family)

This family is also divided into 3 subfamilies; mimosa or acacia subfamily, cassia and pea. Regarded as one of the largest, as well as economically significant families, its members have been cultivated since early times for their plethora of uses – as food, medicine, fodder, for practical use (tannins) and ornamental displays.

BASIC OVERVIEW

A quintessential garden tree, wonderfully ornamental, with distinctive, showy, brilliantly red to deep scarlet flowers and thick, thorny branches. Since early times the trees have been loved, for their ethereal beauty, especially in winter, when the prominent flowers form a striking contrast to the pale, bare limbs, and their ease of cultivation. The coral tree genus has somewhat 120 species, distributed worldwide. In SA, about 6 have been known to reach tree size.

  • HABITAT: Occurs naturally in a variety of habitats, from coastal dune bush, to dry woodland and shrub forests, especially near rivers. Favours high rainfall areas, and is distributed especially in the eastern and northern parts of SA.

  • DECIDUOUS/EVERGREEN: Deciduous

  • BARK: Stems on young trees are smoother and green, and as the tree matures it becomes darker, turning a dark greyish- green or brown. Older trees are often covered with corky lenticels (dots) and scattered, hooked brown thorns, with lengthwise furrows or grooves. Leaf-stalks and branchlets can often be seen with small, scattered curved spikes.

  • FOLIAGE: Leaves are compound, and consist of 3 large leaflets (tri-foliate). The terminal leaf is the largest, up to 125 x 85mm, with the others being slightly smaller, usually 95 x 80mm. The leaves are hairless, alternate, and very shiny and bright green when young. Normally ovate in shape, with entire margins, a broadly tapering to square base, and pointed tip. Occasionally, the rachis, petiole (up to 16cm long) and midrib on the leaf have visible, hooked prickles. Lumpy, globose and green insect galls can also be seen on the leaves.

  • FLOWERS: Striking, clear scarlet or deep orange, rarely pink or white, pea-like blooms, carried in stalked racemes (a flower cluster with the separate flowers attached by short equal stalks at equal distances along a central stem) up to 100 mm long. The flowers consist of usually four smaller, somewhat insignificant petals, that are partly or completely enclosed by a larger, long and narrow keel petal, this being 9-18 mm long. Flowering is typically from June to October. The flowers usually appear when the tree is leafless, in early spring.

  • FRUIT: The fruit comes in the form of slender, cylindrical green (ripening to black) pods, that have clear segments where the seeds are placed. They measure 150-200 x 11 mm, and are carried in hanging clusters on the tree. Once ripe, they split open to reveal tiny, glossy red seeds. (September to February)

  • SEED: Small, bright red/scarlet or orange, with conspicuous black patches where the seeds were joined to the pods. The seeds are also known as “Lucky beans” and traditional African women have been known to use them as beads.

LANDSCAPING DETAILS

  • HEIGHT: 3-10m

  • SPREAD: Sparse, spreading in a rounded habit, 2-5m

  • TOLERANCE: Hardy, tolerant of light drought, but during warm summer months should be watered often. It prefers little to no watering during the winter months, when it is dormant. Only tolerates light frost, and young trees should be protected and covered in winter for the first 2-3 years, until they are established enough to survive short periods of cold. In colder zones, plant in sunny, sheltered area. It will tolerate winter temperatures of -7 to -1 °C.

  • GROWTH RATE: Average to fast, especially if given adequate water during first 5 years. 1-1.5 m per year.

  • LIGHTING REQUIREMENTS: Full sun.

  • SOIL AND WATER REQUIREMENTS: A well-drained, well-aerated soil, such as sand, with a coarse texture. The trees will also put up with dry surroundings and poor soils, as well as moist conditions. Prefers an area with summer rainfall.

  • ADVANTAGES: Undemanding, hardy and fast-growing, with a rounded crown, often branching low down on the thickset, attractive stem, providing light, dappled shade. Extremely ornamental, they make wonderful focal points in large gardens or along street avenues. The trees also lure a vast amount of wildlife, and adds life and beauty to any environment.

  • WARNINGS: Has an aggressive, often invasive and spreading root system, so should be planted well away from structures, paving and buildings. The seeds are also known to contain a high number of toxic alkaloids, but are usually not fatal if ingested, as the human body can expel them in time. The soft wood makes the tree susceptible to attacks from borer, and the leaves are a favourite of caterpillars, which can do quite a bit of damage.

  • WILDLIFE: The flowers are rich in sweet nectar, which attracts Sunbirds. Other bird species such as Bulbuls, Mouse birds, Red-winged Starlings and Weavers are also attracted, and the shiny seeds are much favoured by all seed-eating birds. The seeds are also host to the larvae of many winged beetles, which lay their small yellow eggs inside the immature pods. Vervet monkeys eat the young buds, while bush pigs dig out and eat the roots. The leaves and bark are browsed by kudu, elephants, Black Rhino and baboons. Hole-nesting birds, such as the Pied Barbet and Cardinal Woodpecker frequent the tree, as the wood is soft and light. Green seed pods are a firm favourite of brown-headed parrots.

  • PROPAGATION: With seeds, it is advisable to test them before hand, as they are often heavily parasitized. Simply soak the seeds in lukewarm water overnight, and only use the ones that have sunk to the bottom, the water will also help soften the hard coating. To further aid germination, it is advisable to scarify the seeds, by scraping sandpaper over them, thus weakening the outer layer, and allowing water to permeate through. As the seeds take a long time to germinate, it is advisable to treat them with a pre-emergence fungicide, as this will help prevent seed-decay and diseases. Use a well-drained mixture of pounded bark/compost and river sand (1:2), and place seeds about 3 cm apart, as the seedlings grow rapidly. Do not cover the seeds too deeply in soil, and place in a well-ventilated, sheltered and bright area. (not in direct sunlight). Mist daily, but keep an eye on moisture levels as too much incurs root-rot. Another good, and popular method of propagation is by taking large or small hardwood cutting, known as truncheons, from the tree in early spring or late winter. After harvesting, allow the cutting to dry for about 2 days. Place firmly in a rooting-medium, as described above, and keep moist.

  • MEDICINAL: Extracts from the leaves and bark have been proven to contain numerous anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial compounds, as well as oestrogenic activities. Crushed leaves are applied to septic sores, and the powdered and burnt bark is put onto open wounds as a poultice. Concoctions of the roots are applied as fomentations to treat sprains, and the bark is also used topically to wounds, sores abscesses and areas affected by arthritis. For earache, a mixture of the leaves is used as drops. Lastly, the seeds have shown to contain an anti-blood clotting substance, and could prove valuable in the treatment of thrombosis.

  • PRACTICAL: The wood is soft, light and spongy, and not much suited for use as general timer. However, when the wood is dry, it has a corky texture, and makes a good float for fishing nets. If treated properly, it apparently makes good shingles for roofs, and has been used to make canoes, rafts and feeding-troughs for farm animals. Trees that have died and are starting to dry out are often invaded by swarms of bees, as they make good nests. Branches were rooted to create live fencing poles, and the tree is considered sacred by many African folk, who plant them on the graves of Chieftains. Amongst certain tribes, a truncheon from a tree growing nearby is planted on the graves of the newly deceased.

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