Maui’s Beautiful Weeds: The African Tulip Tree

20 Mar

Atop the itinerary of most first-time visitors to Maui is a day trip to view the rain forests on the road to Hana… the Hana Highway. One of the first trees to grab your attention as you enter the rainforest canopy is a tall fellow with wide-spreading branches overflowing with impossibly bright-red flowers, the African Tulip Tree. But curb your enthusiasm, malahini… it’s a WEED!

The African Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata) is a shade-tolerant, evergreen tree native to equatorial Africa. It is a member of the Bignoniaceae Family, which includes the Jacaranda (also growing on Maui). It is also known as Flame Tree, Fountain Tree, Indian Cedar, and Santo Domingo Mahogany.

African Tulip Tree blossoms

African Tulip Tree blossoms.
(Click on image for a larger version.)

Although it was originally introduced to The Islands as a domesticated ornamental tree, the African Tulip Tree has escaped cultivation and invaded agricultural land, forest plantations, and natural forests; it is now one of the dominant canopy trees in all of Hawaii’s rain forests and has become a serious threat to the biodiversity of that ecosystem.

African Tulip Tree growing along the road to Nahiku, east Maui.

An African Tulip Tree in full bloom along the Hana Highway.
(Click on image for a larger version.)

The African Tulip Tree is a tall tree, growing to more than 75 feet (30 m) in some habitats. It favors moist and wet areas from sea level to 1,000 m throughout Hawaii. The flower’s calyx is a leathery sack filled with watery sap (which attracts many ants, though the flower’s aroma is quite foul) from which blooms a bright scarlet-orange flower that grows in large terminal clusters. It sets flowers year-round, but the most prolific flowering occurs in Winter through Spring. The fruit consists of clusters of upright, canoe-shaped capsules about 10 inches long and 2.5 inches in diameter; these contain hundreds of small flat winged seeds that are easily disbursed by the wind. The seed pods are buoyant and so are easily carried off by streams and surf action to germinate far from the parent tree. The tree also propagates readily from root suckers, broken root pieces, and fallen branches.

Rain forests and drier mesic forests are very susceptible to invasion by this tree. Its high reproductive rate and capacity allow it to colonize disturbed areas (either created by human activity or by storms) at the expense of native plant species. Once established in an area, the tree grows rapidly and it can easily exceed the height of the native flora and shade it. Furthermore, this tree has no natural enemies in the Pacific region.

If the African Tulip Tree replaces native tree species, the effect on the biodiversity of Hawaii’s forests would be disastrous because so many of the native species support numerous tree-dependent flora, such as vines and epiphytes.

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