Forest Pansy and Purple Smoke Tree

When you first encounter the eastern redbud known as Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy,’ you will find it impossible to resist. Deep burgundy foliage that is heart-shaped covers attractive gray bark and, in spring, there is a large collection of pink flowers.
A little more than two years ago, in May 2012, I wrote the following in a newspaper column:
“For the last several years, ever since they were planted, I have been admiring a stand of ‘Forest Pansy’ trees on an embankment just below the Burbank Boulevard off-ramp of the southbound 405 Freeway. I have noticed that one tree is already struggling and not nearly as robust as the others. I will be noting the progress and longevity of these trees to see how long they endure life in the mid-Valley.”
Well, it’s two years later, and when I passed that same freeway embankment recently, I did not see any evidence of ‘Forest Pansy’ trees. So it would appear that, six or seven years after planting, they either died or had become so unsightly that it made sense to remove them.
In that column from two years ago, I reported that in its rainy habitat of the Southeastern U.S., ‘Forest Pansy’ has a life span of 30 years and I projected that it may only live half as long in the dry San Fernando Valley. It turns out that I was too optimistic estimating its life span in this part of the country.
It’s somewhat ironic that when you come to the end of the freeway exit ramp mentioned above and turn left on Burbank Boulevard, you will arrive a few moments later at Vesper Avenue in Sherman Oaks, where two incredibly robust ‘Forest Pansy’ specimens are flourishing. Several years from now, they probably won’t be, but for now they are the picture of health.
At the same Burbank-Vesper corner, purple smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’) is thriving, too. Like ‘Forest Pansy,’ purple smoke tree reaches a height of 10 to 15 feet. It produces clusters of tiny yellow flowers this time of year that slowly turn into large, smoky, pinkish inflorescences. Purple smoke tree, however, is tougher than ‘Forest Pansy,’ as it can grow in just about any type of soil and is highly parsimonious regarding its water requirement.
Red birds of paradise
Back at the freeway embankment mentioned above, several gorgeous red birds of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) have recently been planted there.
Although native to the West Indies, red bird of paradise is remarkable for its drought tolerance and is frequently encountered in desert gardens along with yellow bird of paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii).
These leguminous plants, in the manner of alfalfa, peas, and beans, are assisted by symbiotic, root-dwelling bacteria that assist in manufacturing nitrogen fertilizer. These birds of paradise thus are highly suitable to desert soils that are often lacking in organic matter and nitrogen.
Royal poinciana
There is a special tree, a relative of red and yellow bird of paradise, that only one person, to the best of my knowledge, has succeeded in growing in the San Fernando Valley. This tree is known as royal poinciana or flamboyant, due to its electric orange flowers. Foliage is finely textured and the tree has a parasol shape.
The person who has succeeded in growing it is Gerda Maxey, who lives in Sylmar. Maxey has more than a hundred flamboyant trees, most of which are growing in pots. Maxey refers to the tree as chivato, the name by which the flamboyant (Delonix regia) is known in Paraguay.
I wonder if Maxey has an unusually cold-tolerant strain of this tree. Flamboyants are tropical in origin. They are native to the dry forests of Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa, but are cultivated in the tropical regions of every continent. In 30 years of plant observation in the greater Los Angeles area, I had never encountered a flamboyant tree and would be interested to hear from any readers who have succeeded in growing this species locally.

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