West African tulip: a living water pistol

Drawing of West African Tulip (Spathodea campanulata).  Drawing by L. A. L. Constans - Paxton's Flower Garden, volume 3, (public domain)

Drawing of West African Tulip (Spathodea campanulata). Drawing by L. A. L. Constans – Paxton’s Flower Garden, volume 3, (public domain)

I recently visited The Gambia in West Africa. The purpose of my trip was to work on a GirlGuiding community project, but I did manage to spot some interesting plants along the way. The Organism of November is a tree I saw a lot around the urban area — near the capital Banjul –where I stayed.  It is known as the West African tulip tree and produces beautiful bright orange flowers all year round.

Also known by its latin name, Spathodea campanulata, the tree is a member of the bignonia family (Bigonaeceae). It was “discovered” in 1787 in the Gold Coast and is native to much of West Africa including The Gambia. It can grow to 50 feet or more in height.

It might look beautiful, but this tree is invasive in Hawaii. Image by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0) Forest & Kim Starr - Plants of Hawaii, Image 040713-0125 from http://www.hear.org/starr/plants/images/image/?q=040713-0125

It might look beautiful, but this tree is invasive in Hawaii. Image by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

The bright orange flowers grow in clusters, with only a few clusters flowering at any one time. The flowers are trumpet shaped and have elaborate frilly edges. It is easy to understand why it is considered to be one of the most beautiful flowering trees in the World. It is cultivated as an ornamental plant in many tropical and sub-tropical countries including: the US (in states such as Hawaii and California), Columbia, India, Australia and Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, its introduction into other countries has created some ecological problems and the tree is now considered an invasive species in many countries including Australia, Hawaii, Fiji, The Cook Islands and Sri Lanka.

Back in its native Africa, the tree has many uses. The seeds are edible and the soft, light brownish-white wood is used for carving and making drums. Various parts of the plant are used in traditional medicine. The flowers provide a form of entertainment popular with children. Every bud is pressurized with a watery nectar that, if squeezed just right, makes a water pistol that can fire up to 10 feet!

Watch the a flower bud water pistol in action:

I owe a massive thank you to Kirsty Jackson (@kjjscience) who looked after the site while I was away. Don’t forget to read her guest posts on foraging for fungi and fruits, and the origins of the Jack O’ lantern in Irish turnips.

References:

 National Tropical Botanic Garden (Spathodea campanulata) retrieved 03/11/14

Global Invasive Species Database (Spathodea campanulata) retrieved 03/11/14

Wikipedia: Spathodea (retrieved 03/11/14)

Pacific Horticulture (retrieved 03/11/14)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s