Cockspur Coral Tree

cockspur coral tree (Erythrina crista-galli)

cockspur coral tree (Erythrina crista-galli)

Despite more than a quarter century of Valley plant watching, I had never seen a cockspur coral tree grow to more than four or five feet tall. I had seen a few reach that height but suddenly stop, looking as if they had contracted a malady that inhibited their growth, or as if they were, in truth, mere shrubs with vain arboreal aspirations.
If they were truly meant to be trees, I reasoned, cockspur corals must be highly sensitive to occasional Valley cold snaps and unable to abide summers of dry heat. I assumed that the people who planted these cockspur coral trees were wishful thinkers or delusional dreamers.
But then, just the other day, on Bloomfield Street near Ethel Avenue in Sherman Oaks, I saw a fully grown cockspur coral tree (Erythrina crista-galli). It is nearly 30 feet tall and everything it is supposed to be, the ideal ornamental, drought tolerant, shade trade for an average-sized yard.
The vermilion flowers are truly unique, suggestive of a cockscomb (crista galli is Latin for crest of a rooster) or to a fireman’s cap, one of the tree’s common names. To me, its falcate or sickle-shaped flowers resemble the beaks or plumage of a tropical bird. Its bark is deeply furrowed and, as a member of the legume family, it does not require fertilization.
The one drawback of this tree is hinted at in its cockspur appellation. A cockspur is a thorny growth on the inside of a rooster’s leg. Cockspur corals, also called crybaby trees because of the tears they provoke if you get pricked, have thorny shoots. Thorns, incidentally, are often a sign of drought tolerance since morning dew, in dry climates, runs down their thorny length and is deposited on the ground below where it can be absorbed by roots.
Appropriately, the canary bird bush (Crotolaria agatiflora) is also a legume. Its butter yellow flowers are similar in shape and pleasingly complimentary to cockspur coral flowers. If I were planting a cockspur coral tree, I would definitely plant some canary bird bushes in the vicinity. While the cockspur coral generally confines its flowering to the spring, it may bloom two or three times a year if its faded flowers are pruned before they begin to set seeds which, incidentally, are narcotic and poisonous.
The canary bird bush flowers throughout the year.
There is a modest motel on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, just east of Coldwater Canyon Boulevard, that would be easy to miss were it not for the spectacular, golden yellow Brugmansia trumpet flowers on display there in a sidewalk planter. I have been observing this Brugmansia for many years and it seems to be nearly always in bloom. This time, when walking by, I decided to investigate the situation.
The soil under the Brugmansia was as dry and as hard as a brick. However, there were several inches of mulch, consisting of fallen flowers and leaves, that had accumulated and here, it seemed, was the secret of the plant’s success. Time and again I have noticed that where roots are shaded and/or covered with mulch, the plant above is in perfect health, requiring a minimum of water and fertilizer.
Of course, if you build a layer of mulch under a plant that consists of its own leaves and flowers, it makes sense that fertilization, after a few years, would no longer be necessary, as the minerals required for its growth are continually being recycled back into the plant. As for its water economy, Brugmansia’s succulent stems would seem to confer a significant measure of drought tolerance.
This motel Brugmansia also appears to benefit from stress, brought on by a combination of root constriction and minimal irrigation. Some plants, when stressed, respond by flowering abundantly, as they “think” they are dying and rush to push out flowers and seeds in order to propagate themselves which, after all, is the purpose of their existence. If a plant could stay continuously stressed, as this Brugmansia appears to be, as long as its minimal needs for water and fertilizer were met, it would flower virtually non-stop.
Q: I have three sequoia trees that appear to be dying on the very top branches. They are 16 years old and have just been pruned back. I also have a lime tree in a pot and it has lost all the leaves on the top branches. Is it sick?”
– Marlene de Valera, Simi Valley
A: When sequoias or redwoods are heavily pruned, it may take time for them to regrow and they may appear to be dying. Be patient. You should see them start to grow new foliage within the next month or two.
Before pruning trees, always be careful to select someone with lots of knowledge and experience to do the job, preferably a certified arborist. You may have to spend more than you planned to spend, but the added expense will be visible in the results.
Citrus trees defoliate in containers unless they are fertilized and root pruned on a regular basis. When defoliation occurs, remove the tree from its container, prune off its outer roots (approximately one-third of the root ball), and re-pot with fresh soil.

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