By Robin Y. Rivet, for Let’s Talk Plants! October 2022.
“Bloody Eyeball” Tree fruit, Alectryon excelsus. Ali Undorf, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Trick Or “TREE-t”?
Six trees. No tricks.
1. Eeeuuww… A “bloody eye-ball” tree! Really? Botanically, it’s known as Alectryon excelsus or more commonly - Titocki. Looking closely, the fruit of this unusual species resembles a bad day in the boxing ring. A shiny black seed surrounds a web of small, granular, red arils – which attract birds. You’ve likely walked under one of these gems if you’ve strolled in Balboa Park between the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Junior Theatre. Introduced from New Zealand, they are handsome evergreens, and although on inspection the fruit may be humorously shocking, it’s also a tree that tolerates coastal conditions and partial shade, conceivably quite a conversation piece as a salt-tolerant shade tree.
Brachychiton acerifolius, Illawarra Flame Tree aka “Dead Rat Tree.” Image at left: macinate, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons & image at right: Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
2. Dead rat trees? Yuk!!! Despite their showy, scarlet-red inflorescence, gorgeous Brachychiton acerifolius (Illawarra Flame) trees often sport conspicuous clumps of what look like dead rodents suspended on their branches, which appropriately linger through Halloween. Resembling upside-down rats hanging by their tails, these are actually the tree’s seed pods. Once they split open, out spills reddish-brown guts (the fruit) - which can appear startling. More eeeuuwww; but, it’s a diagnostic characteristic and identifies this species. In truth, the Illawarra Flame tree is a highly, ornamental flowering tree hailing from Australia, which is as rugged as it is spectacular.
Large Bunya-bunya cone, Araucaria bidwillii. Rodmunch99, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
3. Look out below! Randomly crashing from the boughs, 10-15lb. seed cones from the Bunya-bunya conifer - Araucaria bidwilli, have been known to crush innocent bystanders. Whew! Cordoning off this tree’s dripline to prevent human strolling during the cone-bearing season is de rigeur in many public parks, but the species is hardy and strong. No wonder, since the genus has been around since the dinosaur era, and although frequently called “pines,” they are not. All araucarias make wonderful skyline specimens, but, if even you have ample room, don’t send the neighbor’s kids trick or treating underneath this one.
“Devil’s Hand” seed pods, Chiranthodendron pentadactylon. Dick Culbert from Gibsons, B.C., Canada, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
“Devil’s Hand” inflorescence, Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
4. Have you ever shaken the “Devil’s Hand”? Wha-a-at… Again, despite its moniker, this is a fascinating, if somewhat menacing-looking species. Although the large, dark-brown spent seed pod appears a bit other-worldly, the flowers are even more compelling, looking like pairs of squat, red, human-like hands; and its Latin name causes even die-hard plant lovers a little consternation. Chiranthodendron pentadactylon has Greek origins, and is loosely translated as a five-fingered, hand-flower tree, or sometimes “monkey hand.” Native to Guatemala, it’s low water use, fast-growing and evergreen. Greet the devil.
Sausage Tree - Kigelia Africana - tree, fruit, flower, seeds Photographs: Ettore Balocchi (upper left), Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (upper right), Marco Schmidt (bottom left), Genet (bottom right). Montage by RoRo, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
5. Another astonishing species adapted to our region can be found at the nursery department entrance of Southwestern College, where you might encounter gross 1-2 foot “body parts” dangling off long ropes on a tree. Oh no! Thankfully, it’s just a “Sausage tree,” or Kigelia africana. Even more eerie than the numerous dangling fruit are the unpleasantly odoriferous, crinkled, blood-red colored flowers also dangling on long stalks. These are bat-pollinated at night. Boo!
6. Imagine lemons or limes, with no leaves, just thorns - but not really dead? They are winter deciduous citrus or Poncirus trifoliata - Hardy Orange and ‘Flying Dragon’ rootstocks, growing in hedgerows at the Citrus Collection in Riverside, where they look positively sinister in winter. Who knew? Just don’t go trick or treating there - without your rose gloves!