Clavellina Bloom Signals Arrival of Tropical Spring
Tara A. Spears
All the years that I lived in a cold climate with a long winter season, I eagerly awaited the emergence of the first spring bloomers. Since retiring to the sub-tropics, I enjoy growing flowers year round but I still look forward to a rotation of exceptionally beautiful flowering trees that only have blooms a short while. One of my favorites is the perky pink shaving brush tree (bombax ellipticum) that typically flowers in early spring, February/ March. This deciduous tree sheds its leaves in winter –and looks ugly until the blooms add pops of color. Not only is the multi-petaled deep pink flower unique, but the way its outer covering curls back is eye-catching. After the petals drop, the fruit pod that forms is also attractive.
The shaving brush tree, native to Mexico, can be grown as an attractive flowering tree in a large yard. Its Spanish name is Clavellina reaching 30 feet (9m), unless you regularly prune it back. Clavellina grows best in full sun but will tolerate some shade. While the shaving brush tree is very distinctive for its exotic pink flowers, its bark with a striping of green, yellow, and white, is also unique. The flowers appear on bare branches, with the blossoms only lasting for one day before dropping off. After all the flowers are finished, new leaves will appear on the branches. The new leaves have a red color that turns green as they mature.
Because the Clavellina tree has such artistic bark and unique flowers, many people of Central America and southern Mexico plant the tree in their garden. The attractive Clavellina flowers are used to decorate homes and churches. The Shaving brush tree is especially different when it’s young: the trunk has a bulb-like swollen stem that look like a green rock melon.
The Mexican indigenous people use the leaves to make a tea to cure cough and respiratory ailments. The Clavellina tree is also used as firewood and for carving handicrafts. Shaving brush tree can typically be found growing in dry and rocky locations. It is a very ornamental plant and native cultures within it natural range are planted for its attractive appearance but it is also planted to form a living fence. Clavellina seeds can be toasted and eaten and the fruit fibers (kapok) are used to fill pillows and as insulation. The importance of the Clavellina tree to the Mayan civilizations is evidenced by the presence of the flowers in the artwork on ceramic pieces.
According to tropical horticulturists, San Marcos Growers, this plant was first described in 1822 as Bombax ellipticum by the German botanist Carl Sigismund Kunth and later reclassified to its current name by Columbian botanist Armando Dugand in 1943. The name for the genus is the combination of the Latin and Greek words ‘bombax’ meaning cotton ‘pseudo’ meaning “false” whose name came from the cottony white fibers, called kapok, that surround the seeds. This species has only two colors of flowers, the deep pink or white.
If you missed the spectacular show of the shaving brush tree this spring, don’t worry there is more unique beauty on the way! The brilliant yellow flowers on the primavera trees will soon arrive.