An African tulip tree in bloom at Miami's Fairchild Tropical Garden.
This is a large upright tree with glossy deep green pinnate leaves and glorious orange scarlet flowers. It may grow to 80 ft (24.4 m) on an ideal site, but most specimens are much smaller. The tree has a stout, tapering, somewhat buttressed trunk covered in warty light gray bark. The lateral branches are short and thick. The 1-2 ft (0.3-0.6 m) long opposite leaves, which emerge a bronzy color, are massed at the ends of the branches. They are composed of 5-19 deeply veined oval leaflets. The horn shaped velvety olive buds appear in upturned whorls at the branch tips. A few at a time, the buds of the lowest tier bend outward and open into big crinkled red orange tuliplike bells with red streaked gold throats, frilly yellow edges, and four brown-anthered stamens in the center. They are followed by 5-10 in (12.7-25.4 cm) green brown fingerlike pods pointing upwards and outwards above the foliage. Each of these pods contains about 500 tissue papery seeds. The tree flowers in spurts all through the growing season, but peak bloom is usually in the spring. 'Aurea' is a rare cultivar with yellow to orange flowers and tends to be a smaller tree.
African tuliptree comes from the rainforests of Equatorial Africa. It is widely planted throughout the tropics and has naturalized in many parts of the Pacific. It favors moist habitats below 3,000 ft (914 m), but will grow on drier sites and thrives at up to 4,000 ft (1219 m). The biggest trees grow in moist, sheltered ravines.
This species loves rich soil, but puts up with just about anything with a little fertility to it, including limerock. It is not a beachfront plant, but will survive a bit of salinity. African tuliptrees need serious pruning after every freeze or windstorm. Gardeners in marginal regions should plan on growing this as a large ephemeral shrub and plant it in a sheltered place where it can be reached by ladders or bucket trucks for regular pruning and removal of dead branches. Light: African tuliptree will survive in shade, but demands full sun for fast growth and best flowering. Moisture: These trees grow best with plenty of moisture, but will shed their leaves and endure drought. Hardiness: USDA Zones 10 - 11. African tuliptrees drop their leaves when chilled and freeze easily, but they come back from the roots vigorously and often bloom the next season. Top growth will be killed at 28-30ºF (-2.2 - -1.1ºC), but the roots may survive down to 22ºF (-5.6ºC) or below. Propagation: In the wild, the flowers are pollinated by birds and bats and the seeds are dispersed by wind. In cultivation, African tuliptrees often are grown from seed, but seed production is erratic. New specimens can be started from tip cuttings, root cuttings, or suckers.
The smooth gray bark provides a beautiful background for the brilliant red flowers of the African tuliptree.
African tuliptrees are grown for shade, color and tropical effects. The wood is difficult to burn, so the tree is also valuable for fire resistant landscaping. The wood has been used for blacksmith's bellows and the like. The buds contain a liquid that will squirt out if they are squeezed or pierced and children enjoy using these as water pistols. They also enjoy playing with the boatlike open seed pods. In Africa and Haiti, the flowers are thought to have magical properties and the wood is used for witch doctors' wands.
This is one of the world's most spectacular flowering trees. It is also very fast growing. Young trees may put on 6 ft (0.6 m) in height and 2 in (10.2 m) in diameter per year and often begin blooming when they are only a few years old.
African tuliptrees have weak, brittle wood and tend to become hollow and drop large branches as they age, so they are easily shattered by high winds. This tree is also inclined to become invasive in suitable genuinely tropical environments and is regarded as an exotic problem species in Hawaii, Fiji, French Polynesia, and Samoa. In such places, African tuliptree invades both abandoned farmland and mature forests, where the seeds germinate rapidly and form understory thickets from which a few saplings eventually grow into the canopy. Although African tuliptree is not typically thought of as a toxic plant, African hunters are said to have boiled the seeds to extract arrow poison.