Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Will the REAL Mexican Bird of Paradise, please stand up?

I was thinking of Blooming Tuesday and set off on my morning appointment with camera in tow. Lots of plants are blooming in Phoenix right now and one of the most colorful are the Caesalpinia pulcherrima. So much color!

Notice the flower color and the leaf size.

Some of you right now are thinking, “Oh yeah, the Mexican Bird of Paradise. I love those”. Well guess what? This isn’t a Mexican Bird of Paradise. This is the actually the “Red” Bird of Paradise.

The distinctive element that separates this Caesalpinia from the others is the red flower color. Hence the common name, Red Bird. It grows to about 6’ and is root hardy to about 15 degrees. Although it likes to be cut back to 8” to 12” annually in the winter or very early spring.

There is a Pulcherrima “Yellow” Hybrid which makes it even more confusing. You'll see why shortly.

Since the Red Bird and Yellow Hybrid look pretty much dead or frost burned in the winter months, you will want to place it near or behind something that will be prominent during that time of year. I like to place them three or four feet behind boulders. Planting these right next to a sidewalk like above, probably isn’t the best location.

There are actually four Caesalpinias that are popular here in the Phoenix area; all of them are beautiful but, slightly different. Here is the next one.

This is Caesalpinia Mexicana

Again notice the flower color and leaf size.

The Caesalpinia Mexicana, the real Mexican Bird of Paradise is a larger plant, has larger leaves and can be pruned into a small tree up to about 12’ or 15’, is hardy to 18 degrees, and is a native to Mexico. Hence the name, Mexican Bird of Paradise. You can even buy them in 24” and 36” box containers now that the tree form has become more popular.

You can see some great examples of the “Mexican” bird of Paradise in the shopping center parking strip on the north east corner of Tatum and Shea. Hopefully they haven't been hacked up by an eager maintenance person.

One interesting use is in a partially shaded oriental garden. The Mexicana adapts well to shade and opens up into a beautifully delicate and graceful patio tree. This is the best I could do for a picture as this one hasn't been pruned and cleaned up. However you can see how the Mexicana responds to limited sun and how it will fit into a tight spot. The more shade the more open and to me, more graceful it will become.

Curiously enough some of you right now might actually be saying, Oh yeah, the Cascalote, I love that tree. Well guess what? This isn’t a Cascalote. Funny isn’t it. The Cascalote or Caesalpinia cacalaco is a slightly larger tree yet.

As you can see, they look very similar to the Mexicana. The leaves are a bit larger yet (impossible to see here), and the flower looks virtually the same, which is probably the reason for the confusion. However, if you look closely you will notice the bark is bumpy, thorny, and darker. Sort of a reddish-brown. They grow slowly to about 20’ or maybe a bit larger and are hardy to about 20 degrees, slightly more frost sensitive then the Mexicana.

There is another Caesalpinia and it is just as beautiful in its own way. The Caesalpinia gilliesii or Desert Bird of Paradise.

Again, notice the flower structure and color.

You can see this plant is similar in size to the Red Bird but, more open and graceful. The flower is yellow but, with very prominent red stamens. It grows to about 8’, is root hardy to 15 degrees and is a native to Argentina. Like the Red Bird, it likes to be cut back annually and re-grows fairly quickly.

I’m told that all parts of this plant are toxic. I don’t have any direct experience with this issue so I can’t advise you. People do grow and love the Gilliesii. Similarly I have heard that Oleander is said to be poisonous. However, I have planted, trimmed, pruned and probably even inhaled lots of it without a problem. I’m not sure how exactly the toxic issue with the Gilliesii manifests, but be warned, just the same.

All of the Caesalpinia are low water users and adaptable to part shade conditions. They like well drained soil so they are happy in the rocky and sandy soils found around greater Phoenix. The Mexicana and the Cascalote can make a great patio area tree in tight back yards, side yards and even entry ways. They are happy planted in full sun or part shade. Don’t expect everyone you talk to will know the difference. But you will.