Examining trees just about every day for many years in Napa gardens, I see the same common species again and again: maple, ash, oak, elm, redwood, cedar, pine and crape myrtle. (Enough with the crape myrtles already!) Well over two hundred tree species can be found here, but not that many are commonly planted in landscapes. I have gotten to know many of them by sheer recognition, like family and friends.
My tree recognition is better than my face recognition ability. It is embarrassing when I recognize a familiar face but cannot come up with the right name. Seeing a client in a public, unfamiliar setting, occasionally I can resolve it by asking: “What’s your tree?”
My quirky tree recall kicked in during a recent local visit. Among the familiar elms, fruit trees and Japanese maples, a large shrub with big yellow flower clusters and long red curved stamens popped into view. And almost simultaneously, the name popped into my head: Poinciana.
One association, which probably helps the name “stick” in my mind is a wonderful rendition of the song of the same name by Ahmad Jamal. There are many versions by other artists and the lyrics are florid: “Poinciana, somehow I feel the jungle heat. Within me there grows a rhythmic savage beat…”
The Ahmad Jamal version is instrumental, and it carries you along with a laid-back rhythm, reminiscent of a warm and humid climate where this exotic flower blooms.
Check it out at this link: youtube.com/watch?v=SiARr9JhLEo
As to the plant, this particular species of Poinciana, more correctly Caesalpiniai gilliesii, is one of about 70 species, and it is not the one in the song. According to Wikipedia, that one is Delonix regia, the Royal Poinciana, which originated in Madagascar. A large, wide-spread tropical tree, I saw it in Hawaiian landscapes and admired it for its broad umbrella-shaped canopy, covered with scarlet flowers.
The yellow bird-of-paradise came from Argentina and Uruguay, and with a cold winter tolerance of about 10 degrees to 20 degrees (USDA Zone 8) it is suitable as a large, flowering accent shrub, given the right location here in the Napa area. One reference (worldoffloweringplants.com/caesalpinia-gilliesii/) states this species has naturalized in Texas and is “fairly common in the rest of the southwestern U.S.”
It blooms “all summer”, says the Sunset Western Garden Book, but the structure is “open” and “angular”, not elegant. And the leaves drop in cold weather without a good show of color, so it serves best as a source of showy color in the summer landscape.
The “right” location and growing conditions must include full or nearly full sunlight all day for good flower production. The soil must drain thoroughly between irrigation cycles, a challenge for many local gardens where clay is king. Once soaked, clay soil dries too slowly for this, and many other plants. Checking at “SelecTree” (selectree.calpoly.edu/tree-detail/caesalpinia-gilliesii), I found the yellow bird-of-paradise is susceptible to “Armillaria and root rot”.
Armillaria, commonly known as oak root fungus, is common around the valley. It forms persistent disease centers where an old oak has died and left behind the infected woody roots. “Root rot” refers to Phytophthora root diseases commonly infesting wet and poorly drained soils.
If you have a sunny spot that could use a big plant with showy summer color, consider the yellow bird-of-paradise. Be sure to prepare the site and irrigate with caution!