By Brooke Gazer for The Eye Magazine
It was the end of May when we drove into Huatulco for the first time. I recall being struck by the magnificent trees lining the green boulevards, especially those flaunting a riot of color. Who wouldn’t be impressed seeing them in all their glory? It is unfortunate that many visitors to our town miss this beautiful season, when the trees are most striking. Here is a list of my five favorites, accompanied by a bit of trivia on each.
The first three require a lot of space and may be too large for most home gardens, but they can be readily admired while walking along the wide median on Chahue Boulevard. The last two are certainly no less impressive and are more suitable for domestic gardens.
Flamboyant (flamboyán) … When in bloom, you can’t miss them. From April through June, clusters of delicate, bright scarlet flowers bunch together, forming enormous crimson bouquets that cover the entire tree. When this occurs, the tree appears to be on fire, which is where it derives the name. Flamboyant is from the French flambé, meaning “in flames,” as in baked Alaska flambé.
These broad shade trees can go dormant in the dry season, but with year-round watering, they keep some of their delicate fernlike leaves. When the blossoms disappear, they are replaced by flat, leathery pods, up to 60 cm (about 2 feet) long. Dozens of mature pods hang from the branches like skinny bats, giving the flamboyant tree an eerie appearance when denuded of foliage.
There are several varieties of flamboyant trees, but the species found in Mexico is Delonix Regia, which originated in Madagascar. If you have the space for a shade tree, and seek (almost) instant gratification, this one can shoot up by over a meter per year, reaching a height of 10-12 meters (up to 40 feet), with an even greater spread. But take care, invasive roots can interfere with building foundations and sidewalks, something you may have noticed stumbling over uneven pavements around town.
Golden Shower Tree (lluvia de oro) … While not seen as frequently in Huatulco as the flamboyant, these marvelous ornamentals grace many of Huatulco’s streets. From April to September, long sprays of bright yellow flowers droop in clusters from its branches, like rain falling from the clouds. A mature 15-meter (almost 50 feet) tree can spread up to 12 meters (40 feet) across. This deciduous tree loses its long, glossy leaves during the dry season, but with regular irrigation, it retains some foliage. Even as the tree is in full flower, seed pods appear as dark brown cylinders, about 2 cm (about ¾”) in diameter and can be up to 90 cm (almost a yard) long, hanging from its branches.
Cassia Fistula is native to southern India and has spread to southeast Asia; it is both the national tree and the national flower of Thailand. Aside from its beauty, this ornamental also bears the name Aragvadha, meaning “disease killer” in Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda, or “science of life” in Sanskrit, is a natural healing practice, originating over 3,000 years ago in India. It is believed that various parts of the Golden Shower Tree provide remedies for practically every infirmity from constipation to cancer.
African Tulip Tree (tulipán) … Not only is this tree green year-round, it produces masses of enormous, red-orange flowers throughout the year. Large clusters of buds appear at the end of the branches, and each bud opens to form a five-petal bloom of 8-15 cm (3-6″). The flowers are trumpet shaped, with ruffled edges; hence the name “tulip tree.”
Native to tropical Africa, Spathodea campanulata is part of the bignonia or trumpet vine family. This tropical evergreen can reach up to 25 meters (over 80 feet), with abundant, dark green foliage. Its leaves have a matte finish and are slightly rough to the touch.
When the showy blossoms fade, long boat shaped capsules stuffed with seeds appear, and as they open, copious quantities of seeds are released. Even if space allows, you might think twice before introducing the “King of Flowering Trees” into your garden. Those seeds form roots rapidly, and are hard to control, which is why this species is listed among the world’s top 100 most invasive. I can only assume it is through the diligence of Huatulco’s ninety some workers who diligently care for our parks and boulevards, that we do not see an overabundance of African tulip trees in Huatulco.
Bougainvillea (bugambilia) … Native to South America, this ornamental may technically be a shrub, but is easily trained as tree. Several roots planted in unison form a single trunk, allowing the thorny branches to make a canopy of colorful blossoms all around it.
The botanist Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumvent the globe, and it has been speculated that she was the first European to observe this delicate flower. In 1776, women were forbidden to sail, so, on the four-year voyage headed by Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, she disguised herself as her lover’s valet. The lover, Philibert Commerson, took credit for the discovery and named it after Admiral de Bougainville.
With over 300 varieties of bougainvillea worldwide, the range of colors and hues is endless. Bunches of delicate white, yellow. purple, pink, or red “flowers” – the colorful parts are actually bracts – appear all along its thorny branches. The actual flowers are tiny and waxy, white or pale yellow, in the center of the bracts. At times, bougainvillea blooms can be so profuse, they render the small, green leaves practically invisible.
With water, this hearty species stays green and produces blossoms year-round. Depending on the variety, mature bougainvillea can reach between 6-12 meters (20-40 feet) high. Branches might spread an equal distance but require careful pruning to enhance flowering. Under optimal conditions, bougainvillea can achieve about one meter (just over three feet) per year.
Whether as a tree, bush or vine, this ornamental will provide a rewarding burst of color to any garden in Huatulco. Bougainvillea are so common here, it hardly warrants mentioning a location where one might see them.
Plumeria (plumeria, flor de mayo) … Endemic to Mexico, Central and South America, there are 11 sub-species of this tropical flowering tree, each with a multitude of varieties, offering a diverse range of colors or combination of colors, including creamy white, yellow, pale pink and fuchsia. In Mexico, these exotic blossoms were used in rituals by pre-Hispanic Mayans and Aztecs. In Hawaii and parts of Asia, the flowers are strung into “leis,” garlands to adorn women’s hair or wear around the neck.
Also called “frangipani,” the various species of plumeria produce a prolific display of blossoms with a delicate waxy texture and an intoxicating scent. The name frangipani originates with a 16th-century Italian marquis of the family Frangipani. The marquis created a perfume used to scent ladies’ fine leather gloves. The fragrance from this New World flower reminded people of the scented European accessory.
With shiny, dark green, elongated leaves, 20-30 cm long, most varieties reach a height of 4-6 meters (12-20 feet), but some might attain a height of 12 meters (40 feet). Plumeria blooms in the spring, but with sufficient water, a second season is possible after a dormant period. In its leafless dormant stage, this is not an attractive plant. Most trees limbs branch off into progressively finer branches; plumeria boughs simply reach an award stubby conclusion. However, the exotic blossoms that spring extravagantly from these boughs will compensate for what it lacks part of the year.
Plumeria are part of a larger family called Apocynaceae, also known as the dogbane family, because some were used as dog poison. A cut plumeria branch emits a milky substance that can irritate the eyes and skin.
This striking flowering tree can be seen in many locations around town, but on Boulevard Benito Juárez, as it passes by the Hotel Binniguenda in Santa Cruz, you will see several along the median next to the canal.
I understand that for many visitors to Huatulco, the draw is mainly to escape their freezing inhospitable winter climate. But for those who visit only October through March … you might be missing a major attraction!
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la villa, an ocean view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).