July Tree of the Month: Pink Flame Tree
By David Gress
With its stout bottle-shaped trunk, combined with distinctive flowers, seed pods, leaves, and bark, the “Pink Flame Tree” certainly qualifies as one of the most bizarre-looking trees growing in Santa Barbara.
These characteristics have resulted in several of its other common names: “Scrub Bottle Tree” (referring to its trunk, which frequently develops a noticeable mid-trunk bulge that creates the over-all shape of an old-fashion Coca-Cola bottle); “Hat Tree” (referring to the shape of its flowers); “Australian Sycamore” (referring to its leaves, which are similar to those of sycamore trees); and, “Queensland Lacebark” (referring to the lattice-like pattern formed in the furrowed bark on mature trees).
Its curious flowers (deep pink, up to 2 inches wide and long, bell-shaped, without petals but with five reflexed lobes on the calyx) occur in late spring through summer. The flower buds, in clusters of 5 to 8, emerge directly from the branches on peduncles and are densely covered with downy, rust-colored, hairs. Fair warning: picking these flowers can be problematic, because their tiny hairs are irritating to the skin. The flowers open with a deep pink color that fades to a light pink with time.
The seed pods (4- to 5-inch-long and canoe-shaped) are clothed with the same bothersome hairs. The pods dangle from branches, individually or in groups, and sometimes form a delightful star pattern. When mature, the pods crack open to reveal comb-like rows of encapsulated yellow seeds resembling kernels of corn. The seeds are edible, but gloves should always be worn when harvesting them, as they are also protected by their guarding hairs.
Any of the seeds is easily germinated to propagate a new tree. It will grow slowly and, at maturity, will become a medium-sized tree (25-30 feet tall and wide). It is drought-tolerant when established, though it prefers moist and well-drained soil when young. It is disease resistant and essentially pest-free. It prefers a sunny location. It has a compact root system. All in all, it makes a good street tree or garden tree in Santa Barbara, if one discounts the irritating hairs and the litter of flowers and seed pods.
When looking at the Pink Flame Tree’s leaves alone, most people would think they come from either a sycamore or a maple. This is because they have a similar appearance, being deeply palmately lobed, bearing 3, 5 or 7 lobes, and revealing visible veins on both sides of the leaves. They are 4- to 8-inches in length and width. On their top side, they are a shiny dark-green and glabrous (meaning without hairs); on their undersides, they are pale-green and a bit felt-like. The tree is evergreen most of the year but can be briefly deciduous when flowering. Part of the dense tree crown can be deciduous and flowering while, at the same time, another part can be only fully leafed.
The Pink Flame Tree’s botanical name is Brachychiton discolor. The genus name, Brachychiton, is formed from the Greek words brachys, meaning “short”, and chiton, meaning “tunic”; when joined, they refer to the shape of the seed coverings. The specific epithet, discolor, is Latin, meaning “two different colors”; this refers to the two distinct colors in the leaves and to the two changing colors of the flowers.
The Pink Flame Tree is native to the dry subtropical forests of southeastern Queensland and northeastern New South Wales in Australia. Introduced by our pioneering horticulturists in the late 1800’s, it has found a happy home in our area, being very comfortable with our Mediterranean climate, our varied soils, and our irregular rainfall.
Examples of mature Pink Flame Trees can be seen, as street trees, in several places in town: in the 1200 to 1900 blocks of Gillespie Street, intermixed with Chinese Lantern Trees Street; in the 400 and 500 blocks of Garden Street, intermixed with Illawarra Flame Trees (Brachychiton acerfolius); and, in the 100 to 400 blocks of West Cota Street. Younger trees stand in the 400 and 500 Blocks of West Quinto Street.
Tree-of-the-Month articles are sponsored by Santa Barbara Beautiful, whose many missions include the increase of public awareness and appreciation of Santa Barbara’s many outstanding trees and, in a long-time partnership with the City Parks & Recreation Department, the funding and planting of trees along the City’s streets – a project which has resulted in the planting, to date, of more than 12,000 street trees