This most unusual of the South African Erythrina species is an interesting tree with major bird attracting potential.
Erythrina latissima is an attractive, small to medium-sized tree, 5 to 8 m tall. The trunk and branches, which are woolly to begin with, have prominent thorns and thick, corky bark. Unlike the other South African species of Erythrina, the large leaves of E. latissima are soft and velvety to begin with, becoming grey-green and leathery as they mature.
The compact inflorescences are borne on stout peduncles in early spring before the new leaves appear. The flowers are scarlet with a grey, woolly calyx. The seed pod, up to 300 mm long, has constrictions between the bright red seeds. Each seed is marked with a black dot.
The tree is fairly slow growing, taking 20 to 30 years to form a reasonable canopy and will live for over a hundred years. Older trees however, do have a tendency to fall over.
E. latissima is not considered to be threatened although its preferred habitat is under threat from commercial tree farming.
Distribution and habitat
This species occurs on the East Coast of southern Africa from the Eastern Cape to Zimbabwe in frost-free, wooded grasslands and scrub forest. It will withstand light frost but will grow faster in frost-free areas.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The name Erythrina is derived from the Greek word erythros meaning red, while latissima is Latin meaning extensive or very broad, referring to the size of the leaflets.
The genus Erythrina occurs in the tropics and subtropics of the Old and New World. There are about 170 species in the genus, one of the most widely grown being E. crista-galli, a Brazilian species. In Asia , E. indica is planted to provide shade. Other attractive South African Erythrina species described on this website are: E. caffra, E. lysistemon, E. humeana, E. acanthocarpa and E. zeyheri.
When the coral trees are in flower, the red blossoms attract a large number of birds for the copious nectar that they produce. In full bloom, the trees attract sunbirds, weavers, starlings and bulbuls. When the tree or branch is dead, the soft heartwood is easily hollowed out to provide nests for barbets and woodpeckers.
Uses and cultural aspects
The orange-red seeds, commonly known as lucky beans, are threaded on to string to make decorative necklaces, which some believe will ward off evil spirits. The bark is burned and then pounded into a powder which is used to dress wounds. Truncheons of the larger erythrinas are used as fence poles which in time take root, creating a living fence.