Wednesday in the garden: Caesalpinia pulcherrima

Hot colors dominate my July garden and none is hotter than Caesalpinia pulcherrima, 'Pride of Barbados'. The plant has several other popular names as well - Peacock Flower, Mexican Bird of Paradise, Dwarf Poinciana, Barbados Flowerfence, etc. - but Pride of Barbados is how it is commonly called in this area. 

That name betrays its tropical origins. It is believed to be native to the West Indies and tropical America. It is widely cultivated and, since it reseeds prolifically, it has escaped cultivation and become established in tropical regions around the world.

Its species name pulcherrima literally means "very pretty" and that is a fair description of this shrub's flowers.

The plant has flower clusters that are more than a foot long and the blossoms develop slowly, over a period of weeks, starting at the bottom of the cluster and spreading all the way to the end. The flowers start as orange-red tinged with gold and, as they age, they become more orange, less gold. (The yellow flower in the background of this picture is yellow cestrum.)

As the blossoms mature and are pollinated by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, the seeding fruit develops. One look at them will give you a very good idea of what family it comes from. Yes, it is the pea family.

The plant develops as a shrub or small tree. In frost free climates, it is evergreen and most likely to be tree-like. In my zone 9a garden, it is a deciduous shrub that dies back to the ground if we get temperatures below freezing in winter, but it comes back in the spring. My plant gets 5' to 8' tall and just about that wide. In more tropical regions, it can grow as high as 15' to 20' tall and wide. 

From June until autumn, the shrub carries these striking orange-red flowers. Any butterfly in the area will head straight for them, attracted by those hot colors and the nectar that they promise.

July and August are typically hot, dry, and miserable here, but 'Pride of Barbados' never wilts under the broiling sun and requires only minimal water when we go for long periods without rain. It has been a great addition to my garden.


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