Tree lovers among us can wax eloquent about the huge and beautiful royal poinciana trees that grow in and around Kona town. Sadly, growing them in our home gardens requires more space than most of us have available. Luckily this grand tree has a smaller cousin. The dwarf poinciana has a similar but smaller flower and would be an excellent alternative choice where space is limited.
The dwarf poinciana was likely brought to Hawaii in the early 1800s and by 1830 was a well-known ornamental plant here. Today, three cultivars are available locally. The standard has a lovely deep orange blossom with yellow margins. The Compton has rosy petals with cream colored edges and the flava variety produces solid yellow blooms.
Dwarf poinciana, known botanically as caesalpinia pulcherrima, is a member of the fabaceae, or pea, family along with the royal poinciana, delonix regia. Though the large poinciana has been assigned royalty, the dwarf has been named with the Latin word pulcherrima that translates to “very beautiful.” This obviously refers to the gorgeous flowers of this smaller plant.
Luckily, the dwarf grows well as a small tree or shrub here in Kona blooming nearly year round. Often known as the “Pride of Barbados,” this is the national tree of Barbados and is likely native to that island, or other nearby Caribbean islands or countries. It is also sometimes referred to as “Barbados flower-fence” because of its use there as an ever-blooming hedge. The plant is somewhat prickly, enhancing its use as a barrier hedge.
This poinciana puts out multiple stems and can be grown as either a hedge or a small tree. As a tree it can grow 10 or 15 feet tall and equally wide with a rounded crown. This specimen will tolerate heavy pruning so you can easily determine its height and shape. The plant’s attractive leaves are dark green and bi-pinnately compound. The small leaflets are less than three-quarters of an inch long giving it a somewhat delicate overall appearance.
The flowers are the plant’s outstanding feature. They cluster on terminal racemes that can be up to 8 inches long. The flower’s colorful crinkled petals surround long whisker-like stamens add an interesting dimension to their appearance. Like most leguminous (pea family) plants, the flowers are followed by bean-like pods that contain viable seeds.
The best way to propagate new plants is from the seeds that are produced following flowering. Dwarf poinciana will grow quickly from seeds. Remove the pods when they are brown and dry. Take out the seeds and dry them further before planting. You can direct seed in your garden or grow them in a container filled with a seeding mix. If in a container, keep the mix moist (not wet) until the seed germinates and the plant puts out a few true leaves. Seeds usually germinate in about a week. In a month or two they should be ready to plant in the garden.
The dwarf poinciana grows best in hot, sunny locations. It is salt and wind tolerant and can endure short dry spells as well. Once established in favorable growing conditions, this tropical plant will thrive, grow quickly and should flower in its first year.
Pruning a dwarf poinciana is only needed if you want to reduce the size or change the shape of the plant. To maintain its shrub-like growth habit you can allow it to have multiple uprights and keep the lower branches. If you want it to be a specimen tree, reduce the number of uprights and remove the lower branches. In either form, it will definitely add beauty to your landscape.
A healthy poinciana will need very little maintenance. It will usually resist diseases or insect attacks and only needs light fertilization two or three times a year to help it thrive. If problems appear, approach them with standard low toxicity remedies and know that if you lose one, it is easy to grow a new one from seed.
Owing to dwarf poinciana’s long tenure in the tropics, many uses have been found for the plant. In Mexico, the pods are picked when green, cooked and eaten. At some stage, parts of the plant may be toxic, so do some research before eating. All parts of the plant are used throughout the tropics medicinally and in making dyes. Here in Hawaii, the flowers are used to make a striking lei accented by the flower’s long stamens. A lei of poinciana seeds is long lasting as well as attractive.
Of course, if you know of trees in your neighborhood, you can ask for seeds to grow your own dwarf poinciana. You may find potted plants in local garden shops or nurseries or you can call Margo (formerly of Sunrise Nursery) at 329-7593 and ask her to do a search for the cultivar you want.
Any way you find to add a dwarf poinciana to your landscape will definitely bring you pleasure from the beauty of the flowers to the ease of maintenance. Get one and enjoy it.
Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living on an organic farm in Captain Cook.
Friday: “Lantern Parade” from 6-9 p.m. in Historic Kailua Village. Kickoff event for this years Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. For a complete list of events go to http://konacoffeefest.com/about-the-festival/featured-events.
Saturday: “Work Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Volunteers will be able to help with garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown bag lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at 323-3318 for more information.
“Plant People Road Show” from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Old Kona Airport Pavilion. Twelve growers offer a plant sale and talk story opportunity. Direct, nursery-customer setting enables meeting nursery owners who can offer expert growing guidance. Admission is free. For more information phone 987-3231.
“UCC Hawaii Miss Kona Coffee Scholarship Competition” at 5:30 p.m. in the Courtyard by the Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.
Next Sunday: “KTA Super Stores Kona Coffee Recipe Contest” from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.at Hawaii Community College Palamanui. More information at http://konacoffeefest.com.
“Kona Historical Society’s Farm Fest 2018” from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Kona Coffee Living History Farm. More information at http://konacoffeefest.com/about-the-festival/featured-events.
Farmer Direct Markets
Wednesday: “Hooulu Farmers Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay
Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market” 8 a.m. to noon at Keauhou Shopping Center
“Kamuela Farmer’s Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at Pukalani Stables
“Waimea Town Market” from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Parker School in central Waimea
“Waimea Homestead Farmers Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at the Waimea Middle and Elementary School Playground
Sunday: “Pure Kona Green Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook
“Hamakua Harvest” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Highway 19 and Mamane Street in Honokaa
Plant Advice Lines
Tuesdays and Thursdays: 9 a.m. to noon at UH-CES in Kainaliu – 322-4893
Mondays and Fridays: 9 a.m. to noon at UH CES at Komohana in Hilo 981-5199 or firstname.lastname@example.org