March Tree of the Month: Pink Trumpet Tree

By David Gress

The Pink Trumpet Tree’s bright floral display is simply stunning.  From late March through May –    depending on the weather and when the tree is otherwise bare of leaves – its startlingly pink to magenta colored flowers bloom in great abundance, absolutely covering the entire canopy.

Surprisingly, this remarkable tree was relatively unknown in the Santa Barbara community, until about 50 years ago when it began to be planted here as a standout ornamental in private gardens and public landscapes.

Its brilliant flowers appear on terminal panicles, in clusters of three, with several clusters per panicle.  Each flower fis trumpet-shaped (up to 3 inches long and 2 inches wide) with a white to yellow throat interior that opens to reveal deep magenta stripes.  Each flower is “perfect”, which means it holds both male and female reproductive parts. The flowers are eagerly pollinated by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

After pollination, the flowers develop into long green seed pods (5 to 20 inches long and ½ to 1 inch wide).  When mature, the pods turn brown and split open lengthwise;  each pod then releases up to 150 winged seeds!  The seeds are dispersed by the wind and will germinate easily, provided they are planted within two weeks of dispersal.

The ovate- to elliptical-shaped leaves are palmately compound, each with 5 to 7 leaflets radiating outward from a central point.  The terminal leaflet is the longest (up to 8 inches long and 2 inches wide), while the lateral ones are progressively smaller; the petiolules (leaflet stems) are short (½ to 1½ inches long).  The shiny bright green leaves are thin, with finely serrated edges; the underside of the leaves bear fine hairs on the axils of the veins.

When the tree is young, its bark is beige-gray and smooth; as it matures, the bark turns a darker brown-gray and will be rough with deep fissures.

Pink Trumpet is a small- to medium-sized tree, reaching a height of 25 to 35 feet with a spread of 20 to 30 feet.  When young, it has an open and sometimes asymmetrical growth habit that can require staking and pruning to give it a good branch structure; as it matures, it develops a rounded crown.  Depending on the microclimate where it is growing, it can be either deciduous or semi-deciduous.  It is a slow-growing tree but long-lived.  While it does not bloom as a young tree, the wait for several years is well worth the time and effort.

In California, this lovely tree has always been known by the common name of Pink Trumpet Tree and was traditionally sold under the botanical name of Tabebuia impediginosa.  However, this formal name has been changed many times over the last 50 years, leading to some confusion in the horticultural literature and in the minds of tree lovers!  In the future, further genetic testing and analysis will likely change its name yet again.

The most currently accepted botanical name for the Pink Trumpet Tree species that has been planted in the Santa Barbara area is Handroanthus heptophyllus.  The genus name, Handroanthus, combines the name of the Brazilian botanist Oswaldo Handro (1908-1986) with the Latin name for a flower, “anthos”.  The specific epithet, heptophyllus, comes from the Greek words “hepta”, meaning “seven”, and “phyllis”, meaning “foliage”, and refers to the seven leaflets forming each compound leaf.

Handroanthus heptophyllus is endemic to the high forest watersheds in Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Brazil, where it is commonly named “Black Lapacho”.  In 2012, it was formally designated as the national tree of Paraguay.

The wood from this species (and from other closely related trees) is commonly called “ipe wood”.  It is very hard and has a dense weatherproof grain that turns dark when exposed to air.  Since ipe wood is extremely strong and resistant to decay and insects, it is often used for all types of construction, including that of boats, docks, decks, floors, stairs, and beams.  It is favored by woodworkers who turn it on lathes into beautiful bowls.  The bark and leaves have antibiotic and disinfectant properties and, in the tree’s native areas, have been used in traditional herbal medicine;  warning, they can be toxic, if not processed properly.

The Pink Trumpet tree should be planted in full sun and preferably in deep well-drained sandy loam soil.  It does require some regular irrigation during the dry season.  When young, it is frost sensitive; when mature, it can withstand brief temperatures of 20 degrees F.  It seems to grow and bloom better in locations with hotter temperatures.  Its firm roots and solid wood help it withstand strong winds.

The Pink Trumpet Tree is useful as a specimen ornamental and as a tree to attract and support beneficial pollinators.  This relatively rare tree is a delightful addition to diversify our urban forest – and should planted much more frequently in local private gardens and public landscapes.

Mature Pink Trumpet Trees can be seen in several public locations in our community: there are two in Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden; two in Plaza Vera Cruz Park; several in the 500 and 1200 blocks of State Street; two at the southwest corner of the County Court House grounds in a group along with a Golden Trumpet Tree; and a large specimen in the 2000 block of Chino 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.

Those who wish to honor a special someone can do so with an attractive commemorative marker that will be installed at the base of an existing street tree in the City of Santa Barbara.  Because Santa Barbara Beautiful has participated in the planting to date of over 13,000 street trees, there are plenty of trees from which to choose!  Application forms are available on the Santa Barbara Beautiful website, www.sbbeautiful.org.

Article and Photos by David Gress

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