Updated: Nov 25, 2020
African Tulip Tree-Spathodea campanulata
4 things you may not know about this Kauai plant
1. What is it? The African Tulip Tree is a member of the Catalpa family and is a tropical perennial tree. It is hard to miss this tree because of its height of up to 85' and its very showy, large orange flowers-which resemble fringed Tulips. The flowers are at the top of the tree and bloom all year round. The tree has a pinnate leaf and an overall rather course appearance. The seed pods are a rich dark brown, cigar shaped forming erectly on the tops of the tree. As the pods split open lengthwise, they reveal 2 layers inside-the top one looking similar to a tongue depressor (or as a surf board) which lifts and releases the bottom layer of up to 500 small papery seeds resembling small heart-shaped pieces of oatmeal, pressed between 2 sheets of cellophane. These seeds are very easily spread for long distances with any degree of breeze and easily propagate in deep shade, giving it notoriety as a very invasive pest.
2. Where did it come from? The African Tulip Tree as the name indicates is native to the African tropics. It is believed to have been introduced in the late 1800's and at some point in the 1920's and 1930's intentionally broadcast by seed. This tree is quite a vigorous grower and easily damaged by strong winds, is drought tolerant, able to germinate in shade, and growing mostly at lower elevations, which is fortunate so as not to crowd out native forest plants. As far as traditional uses for these plants, the tree’s soft wood is suitable for nesting of many hole-building birds, wood is used for the manufacture of paper, drums and for carving and light brown bark is used in treatment of rashes on the skin of newly born babies, as laxative and antiseptic (to prevent growth and development of microorganisms). The seeds have been used as a food in Africa.
3. When is the best time for collecting? The pods are collected after they have fallen to the ground and are a brown. I usually find myself collecting after a couple of dry, windy days to get the most from my efforts. They do can be collected at any time though and if wet from rain, will need to be left to air dry reopening as they do.
4. How are the collected plant parts used? I use both the pods and seed releasers. I used them as an adornment on both baskets and pouches as well as cutting some of the pods into surfboard shapes for my Kauai Surfer Angel Christmas ornaments. I have read that the flower buds are brown, horn-shaped, and filled with water that will squirt out if the buds are squeezed can be collected and used as squirt guns, while the opened seed pods look just like boats.
*Amy is a University of Hawaii Certified Master Gardener Emeritus, has a Bachelor of Science-Landscape Horticulture degree from Ohio State, has been a volunteer tour guide at NTBG, and is a self-proclaimed "plant nut"! She and her husband Ron have been making and selling their baskets for more than 20 years.