Cartas- Letters from Home
Santa Barbara Advent Calendar - December 9
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Santa Barbara Advent Calendar - December 10 - Coral Tree

Coral Tree - Santa Barbara

"Now this city was provided with a thousand gates and was adorned with gardens and pools and in the midst thereof....there rose a Coral Tree...."

(from Buddhist Legends, Harvard Oriental Series, Charles Rockwell Lanham, 1921)

Whether framed by giant birds of paradise, banana trees, red-tiled roofs and white adobe buildings, or growing at the edge of the cliff above a sky-blue sea, the Coral Tree (erythrina) is one of Santa Barbara's most beloved trees. 

And we are not alone.  It seems that the whole world loves the Coral Tree.  There are about 30 varieties of this elegant, wide-branching tree that are found in Indonesia, the Carribean,  Central and South America, India, Australia, and the United States.  Depending upon the variety and locale of the tree,  is known by different names:  as the Immortelle Tree in the Carribean, as the Kafferboom in South Africa, the Tiger's Claw Tree in India, the Wiliwili Tree in Hawaii.  Here in Santa Barbara, we just call it the Coral Tree.

Although there are varieties that thrive in a very humid, damp environment, the  Coral Trees in Santa Barbara are very happy with our long dry seaon, as well as our temperate climate. 

The deciduous tree wears a rough grey bark over a light and spongy wood.  In fact, the wood has been used throughout history in the same manner as cork.  As it has the same buoyancy as balsa wood, it was the perfect wood to be used in making  Hawaiian outrigger canoes.  

The bright red seeds of the tree are known in some places as "lucky beans", and are used for charms and  jewelry, and are used as  rosary beads in some African and Carribean countries.  Some cultures even use the seeds for medicinal purposes.

 The seeds, like the wood,  are buoyant.  It has been hypothesized that their distribution throughout the world is due to their ability to float across the ocean, and naturalize on most any shore.  Botanist E. Charles Nelson called them, "true long distance drift seeds", for their remarkable ability to stay afloat and viable, even after traveling for hundreds and hundreds of miles  in harsh ocean salt water.

In the winter, the tree begins to lose its leaves, which is why some varieties are referred to as the "Naked Coral Tree."  In Santa Barbara, from late winter through early springtime,  the curved racemes of coral-red flowers take center stage.   In addition to the flame-red color of the flowers, there are varieties whose flowers are pale yellow, orange, green, and white.

One of our local commercial nurseries, San Marcos Growers, has information on their website, listing  the varieties of Coral Trees found in Santa Barbara, as well as details about the growth habits, care, and the special features of each.   

Much of the credit for the introduction of erythrinas to Santa Barbara goes to one of our earliest plantsmen, Dr Emanule Orazio Fenzi, better known to most as Francesco Franchesci.  In his book, Santa Barbara Exotic Flora, published in 1895, he writes:

Erythrinas, or Coral Trees as they are usually called, are represented in Santa Barbara by the well-known erythrena cristagalli  growing to large size and making a gorgeous display with its flaming bunches of flowers - a dozen or more kinds have just been introduced by us in Montecito.

In the past 100 years and more since Dr. Franchesci helped to introduce these trees to Santa Barbara, they have become a common - and lovely - sight in winter.


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