With its ruffled flowers and hot Caribbean color, Caesalpinia pulcherrima is the mambo dancer of the subtropical garden. Some of the common names for this plant include pride of Barbados, red bird of paradise, dwarf poinciana, peacock flower, and Barbados flower fence. In Creole French it is flamboyan-de-jardin. In Mexico it is called caballero. It even has names in several of the languages of the Indian subcontinent. With so many common names, this has got to be a special plant.
Caesalpinia pulcherrima is native to the West Indies and Mexico. A more precise location cannot be determined since the plant has been cultivated and spread since early times. Though it is from a truly tropical region, the plant is will grow outside of the tropics. It is hardy in USDA zones 8 and warmer or western Sunset zones 12-16, 18-23, H1, and H2. Note that it is not recommended for the mild-summer Sunset zones 17 and 24. This is because the plant needs hot weather in order to bloom. Plants can freeze to the ground in the colder zones but will regrow quickly in the spring. It can be grown as an annual in zones colder than USDA 8.
C. pulcherrima has pyramidal clusters of yellow-orange and red-orange flowers at the ends of the branches. The cultivar 'Phoenix' has yellow flowers. The flowers bloom from midsummer into fall and are a welcome sight during the hottest days when so many other plants look tired. The flowers are followed by the seedpods, which are 'beans' several inches long. The seeds contain gallic and tannic acid and are poisonous. When the seeds are ripe, the pods split open, sometimes hurling the seeds several feet. The seeds are hard, caramel-brown disks about 1/4 inch (6 mm) in diameter. If one would like to collect seeds before they are scattered, they can be taken from the pods when the pods are dry and stiff and the seeds rattle inside. Seeds should be scarified before planting.
C. pulcherrima is a fast-growing shrub that gets up to ten feet tall and wide in the subtropics and warm temperate regions. In the tropics it can be a small tree up to 20 feet tall. In the United States it is usually deciduous but can be evergreen where winters are mild. The fern-like foliage is blue-green, which happens to be the color opposite of red-orange. The contrast makes the flowers even more striking.
Royal Standard of Barbados
Plants should be planted in hot, sunny sites. Since the stems are spiny, the plants should be planted away from sidewalks and patios. Soil should be well-drained. Watering should be infrequent but deep during the growing season. Though the plant tolerates drought, it will not bloom well if kept too dry.
Growth may be slow for the first year, but after the plants are established, they grow quickly. If pruning is desired, plants should be pruned before new growth begins in the spring. Plants can be cut back all the way to the ground to make a more compact specimen. Flowers form on new growth, so pruning at the right time will not decrease flowering.
This is a plant with royal connections. C. pulcherrima is the national flower of Barbados. The flower is featured on the Royal Standard of Barbados. In Hawaii, the plant is called chief's poinciana or 'ohai al'i because yellow and red were royal colors.
In Mexico, the fruits are used to make a red or brown dye and the roots are used to make a red dye. The flowers and leaves are used to make a mouthwash. Powdered flowers are used as an insecticide. In Guatemala, the leaves are used to stun fish. It is reported that people in central Africa eat the seeds after boiling them in several changes of water to remove the tannic acid. In India, the plant is sacred to the god Shiva and in India and Thailand various parts of the plant are used medicinally. In Indonesia, the hard wood is used to make pegs for carpentry and boat-building.
Are you looking for a shrub to brighten up a hot spot in your garden? Consider the easy-to-grow Caesalpinia pulcherrima for some tropical color.
Mature foliage is blue-green
Seedpods and seeds
Young foliage is red
About Kelli Kallenborn
I have lived in California for 20 years and really enjoy the climate and all of the varied natural ecosystems.