African Tulip Tree
- DIVISION: Tracheophyta (vascular plants)
- CLASS: Magnoliopsida (dicotyledons)
- ORDER: Scrophulariales
- FAMILY: Bignoniaceae
- GENUS: Spathodea
- SPECIES: campanulata
Among the most beautiful of flowering trees, the African tulip tree comes from tropical Africa, where it reaches heights of 60 feet (18.3 meters) or more; in San Diego, they average 25 to 40 feet (7.6 to 12.3 meters) tall. When in bloom, the tree puts on a spectacular display, aglow with a profusion of stunning, orange-scarlet flowers.
A blooming African tulip tree clamors for attention, displaying clusters of showy, five-inch-long (13-centimeter-long) flowers that resemble frilly tulips. The bloom season, which depends on where the tree is planted, may last as long as five months. Fruits are 6- to 12-inch-long (15.2- to 30.5-centimeter-long) cigar-shaped pods that dry and harden. When they fall from the tree, they split into two boat-shaped halves and spill about 500 thin, flat seeds. The filmy wing that surrounds each small seed catches the wind and helps the seed disperse.
You might spot this exotic standout in urban and suburban landscapes where it has been introduced, including warm parts of the US, Australia, Central America, and some Pacific Islands. One cultivated variety bears flowers that are golden yellow. Although evergreen in their native tropical Africa, these trees are sensitive to cold, and may be cold-deciduous in cooler climates. They may also drop their leaves to survive very dry seasons. These trees do best in full sun, but outside of the tropics they rarely reach their full height. Limbs should be trimmed to prevent wind damage, as the wood of an African tulip tree is soft, bearing brittle stems, hollowing with age.
These trees are harvested for various commodities, including food and medicine. It is used for reforestation projects, for soil conservation, and as a crop for the production of plywood and charcoal. African tulip trees attract birds and other wildlife with their copious nectar and ability to hold rain and dew.
This beauty can also become an unwanted guest. The African tulip tree has naturalized in some places, including certain tropical Pacific Islands and Queensland, Australia. In these particularly hospitable areas, it self-sows freely. In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Invasive Species Specialist Group names this plant in their published list, 100 of the World's Worst Alien Species. If that sounds like a harsh judgment, consider that African tulip trees invade natural ecosystems—once they grasp a piece of real estate or have a roothold, they basically outcompete native vegetation.