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.


  1. Glorious and bizarre flower. How inventive nature is.

  2. I love the gradations of red and orangey-red in the Red Bird of Paradise. And those long stamens are amazing on the Gilliesii! Beautiful.

  3. You are an artist Phoenix, so you will appreciate this. There really is no orange in the flower clusters of the Red Bird. Only yellow and red. But the farther away you stand, the more orange it looks. The yellow and red tend to blend into a bright orange color thatreally stands out. This is usally the first plant you will notice, sometimes from 3 blocks away, so it makes a great focal point in the summer months.

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  5. I want to thank you for your terrific explanation and pictures of the various "Birds of Paradise." I have lived in the Valley for 28 years and this is the first time that I understand them all. There are so many landscape people who have no idea about the differences or even that 4 varieties with similar names exist! As you said, at least now I will know what I am talking about!

  6. No problem, Nancy. I learned about the difference shortly after I moved to Phoenix. While talking with a local grower, I noticed this beautiful shade tree with yellow clumps of flowers all over it. As I got closer I recognized the flower and said, "Wow, that's the largest Mexican Bird of Paradise I've ever seen!" He laughs and says, "Not exactly". It was a Cascalote.

  7. I am a AZ wanna be currently living in Portland, Oregon. Thank you for briefly taking me there. I really enjoy your blog.

  8. Strange, I am a landscape designer in Texas, and ever since I first saw this plant (in Sri Lanka, where I am certain it is a native), I have been entranced by it.

    But I have never heard it called a Bird of Paradise.

    Here, the most frequently heard nursery name is "Pride of Barbados"

    Any thoughts on this?

  9. Well, aren’t you the Fancy Pants, coming in here and posting from Texas. You are right that The Caesalpinia Pulcherrima is a native to parts of India…. And a few other places, like Barbados, Mexico, the Amazon region in South America, and probably tropical regions of Africa. It is actually the national flower of Barbados which is probably why you’ve heard it called, “Pride of Barbados”.

    It is not native to the Sonoran Desert, but we like it just the same. Here we call it a “Desert Adapted” plant because it will grow here with a minimum of help. Our Pulcherrimas probably came from Mexico, which might be why so many people here call it, “Mexican Bird of Paradise” even though it isn’t the Mexicana.

    Common names can be so confusing and they tend to change with the locale. For instance, Common names for this species include Poinciana, Peacock Flower, Red Bird of Paradise, Mexican Bird of Paradise, Dwarf Poinciana, Pride of Barbados, flamboyan-de-jardin, and if you are a Medicine man in the Amazon Rainforest you would call it, “Ayoowiri”. What do the gardeners in India call it?

    This is just a beginning of the confusion, too. There are a few more plants called Bird of Paradise that are not a Caesalpinia and look nothing like them. But you have to draw he line somewhere or the blog posts get so long everyone falls asleep.

    Thanks for stopping by FP and I hope I answered your question. What part of Texas are you writing from?

  10. I had a blog post similar to this in 2007--titled 'The Real Mexican'. Great minds think alike! I'm glad you showed the various species with good photos. Always helps.

  11. Wow, Bill, thanks so much for clearing that up! I wish I knew what the Sri Lankans called the Caesalpinia, but I never got a chance to ask anyone who would know. Also, I've never had any luck propagating its seeds...

    I am in Austin, TX, where we've just endured a week of 105 degree days.

    I love your blog because I learn so many species that are possible to incorporate into landscapes here.

    The only problem is that our winters are a little harsher than yours, which I think rules out a lot of the more frost-sensitive types.

    I've seen Caesalpinia freeze and die back to the ground, only to re-emerge in the spring healthy as can be, incidentally.

  12. Same here. Most maintenance companies will trim the the Pulcherrima and the Gilliesii back to almost ground level. The Mexicana and the Cacalaco are both very nearly evergreen here.

    Thanks for stopping by again and I'm glad I can help out. I love the Austin area. I think it's a very beautiful there. I have relatives in San Angelo and we have travelled through Austin a few times.

  13. Thank you for clearing up the Red Bird of Paradise vs.Mexican Bird of Paradise. My parents live in Mesa and collected some seeds for me. I am in the N.E. Texas area near Tyler.Do you have any information on pre-treatment for seed propagation? Thanks Dirk Clinesmith- Tru-Liner Nursery Co.

  14. No I don't, Dirk. However, Mountain States Wholesale Nursery will undoubtedly have some answers for you regarding desert plants. There are some wonderfully knowledgeable people working there. - (623) 247-8509.
    By the way, which ilex is the 56th?

    Good luck and thanks for your comment.

  15. Caesalpinia pulcherrima from Texas seeds have grown successfully in my south Georgia garden. I didn't pretreat the seeds. They were very slow to germinate. This is the third summer for my two plants. Seed started this spring were lost when the cat stepped on seedlings.
    They die back to the ground in winter and are slow to put out growth until really hot weather. We call them Pride of Barbados, to differentiate from the tropical Bird of Paradise.

  16. thank you for the explanation bill. furthermore the pics are greats!! good job also caesalpinea pulcherrima is also known as Orgullo de Barbados or ponciana enana.

  17. This was a great find! I was wondering how to distinquish the needs of the 3 types of BOP I have planted and someone sent me a link to this article- great help! Thanks!

  18. Love the Cascalote ! I use them in Arizona landscape designs all the time. Great tree, reliable, great texture.