The genus Erythrina contains over a hundred species in different regions of the world. Six of these are indigenous to South Africa and two of them are common in the part of the Eastern Cape where I live. During our recent trip to the Western Cape and back, I was struck by the number of Erythrinas that are still in bloom. The smaller Erythrina lysistemon is probably the most widespread and was commonly seen at various places along our journey. This tree is growing next to the N1 just outside of Grahamstown:
These trees flower prolifically during the winter and early spring and brighten up the countryside:
The scarlet flowers are very eye-catching with their relatively long petals that enclose the stamens:
Growing next to this was an example of the other fairly common species, the Erythrina caffra. Its flowers are more open and have an orange hue. Note the backward curving petals and exposed stamens:
Three of these trees grow in my back garden, their pretty blossoms also appearing during winter and into the spring:
The flowers of both these trees attract a variety of insects and birds, providing much-needed sustenance during these ‘lean’ seasons of the year.
Wilfrid Scawen Blunt began a verse like this:
Red, red gold, a kingdom’s ransom, child,
To weave thy yellow hair she bade them spin.
At early dawn the gossamer spiders toiled,
And wove the sunrise in.
As red plays an important part in the decorations of this festive season, I thought we could start with a ‘red, red gold’ sunrise as seen from our bedroom window – beautiful enough to make one wish to rise straight away and see what the day holds in store:
The drabness of the South African winter is brightened by the arrival of the aloe blossoms in various shades of pinks, through to orange and hues of red – they are certainly worth a ‘kingdom’s ransom’ at the time for their beauty and cheerfulness:
Proteas too lift one’s spirits:
Once the scarlet blooms of the Erythrina trees are over and the trees shrug on their green foliage, which later turns yellow and then brown before dropping, we are treated to the bright red of their seeds revealed when the black pods split open:
On a practical note, warning signs are red. Occasionally one has to ‘make do’ as here when the planks brought home were too long to fit into the boot of the car:
Lastly, on a more aesthetic note, see how red brightens up this stained glass window:
As we start peering towards the end of winter, it is appropriate to introduce the slender, rather graceful member of the Erythrina family in South Africa: the Erythrina humeana, commonly known as the Dwarf Coral Tree. This specimen in Kew Gardens still retains the former name for it: Dwarf Kafferboom, a name now considered offensive in this country. I am nonetheless interested that they have used the Afrikaans spelling instead of the English form, Kaffirboom. Well, ‘boom’ is Afrikaans anyway (meaning ‘tree’), so why not.
This attractive plant grows from the Eastern Cape, through KwaZulu Natal and Mpumalanga into Swaziland and Mozambique. They flower in summer, bearing leaves at the same time – unlike Erythrina caffra and Erythrina lysistemon, for example. The latter two flower from winter to early spring, when the trees tend to be leafless. The beautiful scarlet flowers are long-lasting as they usually appear from about September to April. The specimen below grows on a pavement in a nearby suburb of our town.
Erythros is the Greek word for red. The genus Erythrina is derived from this word – an allusion to the colour of the flowers, such as this Erythrina lysistemon, photographed in the Addo Elephant National Park.
I have often mentioned the Erythrina caffra that towers over our back garden. Collectively, Erythrinas are known as coral trees these days, although some also refer to them as ‘lucky bean trees’. This is a reference to the bright red seeds that split from the black pods. These can be found scattered on the ground below the trees and are often collected simply to look pretty in jars, or to be made into necklaces or bracelets.
Combine erythros with phobia to form erythrophobia and you have the word to describe an extreme fear of blushing, or a hypersensitivity to the colour red. My dictionary also gives me erythrocyte, which is a blood cell of vertebrates that transports oxygen and carbon dioxide combined with haemoglobin.
Given all this information, could we then (just for fun) describe a particularly red sunset as an ‘erythrostic’ sunset? I present two examples, both taken in the Kruger National Park, for you to look at while you decide.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
– John Keats
Seeds of the Erythrina caffra
These are not the kind of fruits Keats would have had in mind when he penned his ode To Autumn, but as we do not have well-defined seasons in the Eastern Cape, a definite sign of autumn comes in the form of the dry, rustling leaves of the Erythrina caffra settling on the ground, followed by the black seed pods that burst open to reveal the scarlet seeds – often called lucky beans – within.