While some Southern California gardening guides will tell you that this tree is most likely to bloom in spring, here in Santa Barbara, the African tulip tree is having its glory days right now. The large, ruffled tulip-shaped flowers are typically deep orange, but there is a golden yellow variant as well. Both are in full flower this fall. The flowers are large, four inches in diameter or so. The five petals form an up-facing bell and are held at the ends of branches, framed against the deep green foliage. The African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) is native to a fairly wide area in the tropical regions of Africa from Angola to Guinea, Uganda to Sudan. There it is evergreen with glossy, compound leaves of many shiny leaflets. The tree can reach 50 feet in optimum conditions and forms a broad, rounded canopy.
In Santa Barbara, the African tulip tree is likely to thrive only in really warm sites. It can be decimated by a prolonged frost. It also requires very good drainage, making low-lying areas that stay soggy through the cool winter assured of failure. The successful trees in our area seem to be in warm, urban areas where accumulated heat from buildings and pavement is probably contributing to their success. One or more of the luminous yellow ones are planted along Alisos and Voluntario streets just north of the Milpas Street corridor. A few more are planted in the 800 and 1000 blocks of State Street. With luck, in a few decades of minimal frosts, they will grow to shade pedestrians and delight with fantastic flowers.
In other warm countries, African tulip tree is also widely cultivated as an ornamental because of its striking good looks. Unfortunately, it has become somewhat invasive in Hawai’i; another case of too much of a good thing and a cautionary tale for all gardeners and nurserymen. Our marginal climate will not allow this sort of colonization, but care needs to be taken whenever we plant any exotic species. It may be beautiful but pose a hidden threat to our area flora.