April 15, 2014

The Beautiful Butterfly Tree

The Amazing Erblichia Tree

Erblichia odorata
As the old saying goes, "good things come to those who wait". Fortunately, after waiting for nearly a decade, the amazing Butterfly Tree, Erblichia odorata is becoming more available in the landscape trade. What makes this tree amazing is the combination of bright orange-colored flowers, surprisingly large blooms measuring over 7" across on a mature tree, and a tree size small enough to allow the owner of it to see the blooms without using a telescope. 

I recall seeing this flower at a Flowering Tree Society meeting a decade ago, and IF seedlings were available, they were quite expensive and were quickly sold. Now that some of those original trees have borne seed, small plants are becoming reasonably priced, and can be obtained without too much trouble, although far from common just yet. The tree grows easily in a sunny spot in the garden, and doesn't get TOO tall, about 30 feet when mature. The flowers are almost unusually large for the tree, and small trees can bloom when just 7 or 8 feet tall. Our trees are only a few years old, and have shown no particular special needs, but do appreciate extra iron in their fertilizer diet every few months, especially in our nutritionally bankrupt limestone "soil". The tree has a modest canopy of narrow leaves similar to an Oleander, but thinner and more susceptible to wind burn or drought conditions. 

Our plants are growing in a section which gets several hours of direct sun, but afternoon shade; the plants are growing well and we hope for flowers in a year or two. I do not know how cold-hardy this species is, but since it hails from Costa Rica, my feeling is that it won't take much more than a light frost. In a modest amount of space, and with a little judicious pruning, I believe this tree can be a stand-out choice for a residential garden. The only thing standing in the way of this species becoming a major player in the commercial landscape market is its high cost / low availability at the moment. Regarding its cost, one of the important points to remember about this tree is that it is fairly new in cultivation ( compared to many other flowering trees). As with many new introductions, demand exceeds supply for a long time before supply can meet demand.

Someone had the foresight to introduce the plant into the country, spend years growing the plants, distribute it through plant sales and sales to collectors, hope it grows well enough to make subsequent generations and then declare it a success only after decades of trial. The initial money you spend on the tree is more of an homage to the people who ventured the capital and time to grow it for you. We are fortunate indeed to have adventurous nursery owners who bring in such extraordinary plants to satisfy the requests of skilled collectors and home gardeners.              

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

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