Summer in Florida means different things to everyone. While some think only of the stifling heat, other people see themselves relaxing in paradise, perhaps in a hammock swaying gently beneath a gorgeously blooming shade tree. For those in South Florida, royal poinciana (Delonix regia) is probably the tree they're imagining.
Also called flamboyant or flame tree, royal poinciana provides dappled shade in summer, with wide, spreading branches and brilliantly-colored flowers. Many people consider this to be one of the most beautiful trees in the world.
Native to Madagascar, royal poinciana trees are known for their showy flowers. The botanical name is derived from the Greek words delos (meaning conspicuous) and onyx (meaning claw), referring to their appearance. With four spoon-shaped petals about 3 inches long, and one slightly larger petal (called the standard), they resemble orchids, and range in color from deep red to bright orange. Yellow-flowering cultivars also exist. These lovely flowers first appear in clusters between May and July, and can stay on the tree for a month or more.
A mature tree can resemble an umbrella, with a wider canopy than it is tall. The delicate, fern-like leaflets provide light shade and the perfect backdrop for the flowers to shine against. The bark is smooth and gray. Royal poinciana is deciduous, providing your landscape with cooling shade during the hottest parts of the year and warming sunshine in the winter. While it's not sturdy in storms, judicious pruning can help prevent breakage, and the tree will often recover quickly after losing limbs.
Planting and Care
This tree prefers frost-free areas, generally USDA hardiness zones 9b–11. Royal poinciana will grow in a variety of soil conditions and once established, is highly tolerant of both drought and salt. There are no major pest or disease problems. For the best flowers, plant your tree in an area that receives full sun.
Many find that royal poinciana is best for larger landscapes. Your tree could reach a mature height of 40 feet—with a canopy 40 to 60 feet wide. And because it has large surface roots, be sure to plant your poinciana at least 10 feet from pavement, sidewalks, and buildings. Be aware that grass will grow poorly beneath your tree.
Royal poinciana does require a level of maintenance that makes it less desirable to some homeowners. While adored for the beautiful flowers, the large "bean-pod" fruits that follow can become a nuisance. These 2 inch by 18 inch fruits persist through winter and drop off in the spring, becoming annoying landscape litter for some gardeners.
Beyond picking up fallen pods, pruning is necessary to create a strong tree structure. Royal poinciana branches are susceptible to breakage, particularly in high winds. Prune your tree early to encourage the development of branches that are well-attached to the trunk. Prune any major limbs that are half the diameter of the trunk. The best time of year is right before the spring regrowth starts, usually late March into April. Additionally, you should train your tree so that the major limbs are all 8 to 12 feet from the ground. This clearance below the canopy allows you to enjoy the shade while still keeping the tree strong. And take care while doing yard work; like most trees, the lower trunk of your royal poinciana can be damaged by line trimmers.
A newly planted royal poinciana will likely take five years to bloom, although there are reports of some trees taking twelve years or more. To avoid waiting for blooms, you can purchase a tree that's already flowering. Sometimes only portions of the tree will produce flowers, but these events usually only occur once every five years or so. The rest of the time you should be able to enjoy your royal poinciana blooming during the summer in South Florida.
Royal poinciana truly is a gorgeous tropical tree. Even if there isn't room in your own landscape, keep an eye out for this blooming beauty in South Florida.