Botanical Name: Erythrina lysistemon
Common Names: Coral-tree, Lucky bean tree, Umsintsi (Xhosa), Muvhale (Venda), Mophete (Tswana), Koraalboom of kanniedood (Afrikaans), Mokhungwane (Sotho) and umsinsi (Zulu).
Habitat: Erythrina lysistemon is native to South Africa.It grows in a wide range of altitudes and habitats from North West Province, Limpopo (formerly Northern Province), Gauteng, Mpumalanga, through to Swaziland and KwaZulu-Natal, and down to about the Mbashe River Mouth in Eastern Cape. Further north in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Angola it occurs in small pockets. It grows in scrub forest, wooded kloofs, dry woodlands, dry savannah, koppie slopes and coastal dune bush and also in high rainfall areas.
Erythrina lysistemon is a species of deciduous tree.The tree reaches 30 to 40 ft (9.1 to 12.2 m) in height, with smooth grayish bark, not corky; hooked prickles scattered on trunk and branches; leaves with 3 leaflets, up to 7 in (18 cm) long, petiole and midrib prickly.
Short, hooked prickles are sparsely and randomly scattered on the trunk and branches. The leaves are trifoliolate (compound leaves with 3 leaflets), and each leaflet is large, usually up to 17 x 18 cm. The petiole, rachis and the midrib have hooked prickles on them. The common coral tree blooms in early spring (from August to September) and it produces its flowers before its new leaves or just as the leaves begin to show. The tree is leafless for up to 4 or 5 months of the year. The lovely scarlet red flowers are borne in dense racemes in spring before leaves and attract numerous birds and insects to the garden.
The flowers are a beautiful clear scarlet and are carried in short, dense heads, about 9 cm long, on long, thick stalks. The standard petal (the large uppermost petal) is long and narrow and encloses the other petals and the stamens. The flowers produce abundant nectar that attracts many nectar-feeding birds and insects, which attract the insect-feeding birds as well.
The fruit is a slender, black pod that can be 15 cm long and is sharply constricted between the seeds. The pod splits while still attached to the tree to release bright red ‘lucky bean’ seeds.
Erythrina lysistemon is not very cold tolerant, growing best in frost free gardens. It will, however, survive in regions where winter temperatures fall occasionally (and for short periods) down to -7°c, provided it is planted in a sheltered position, and protected from frost when young. It prefers dry winters, but can thrive in moist winters as long as it is planted in well-drained soil.
Erythrina species are tolerant of a range of soils, often tolerating poor fertility, but generally grow best in a sunny position in a moderately fertile, well-drained soil. Established plants are fairly drought tolerant, but plants grow better in moist soils.
Erythrina lysistemon is often confused with Erythrina caffra, the coast coral tree. In most respects they are very similar, and were in fact regarded as the same variable species for many years and, when not in flower, are difficult to tell apart.
All species in this genus are believed to be self-compatible. Their flowers are adapted to pollination by birds, though various insects can also cause fertilization. The various species of Erythrina can all, as far as is known, be intercrossed to produce fertile hybrids. Those species most closely related to each other cross fairly readily, but even species that are quite distant can hybridize.
This species has a symbiotic relationship with certain soil bacteria, these bacteria form nodules on the roots and fix atmospheric nitrogen. Some of this nitrogen is utilized by the growing plant but some can also be used by other plants growing nearby.
Erythrina lysistemon is easily propagated from seed, cuttings and truncheons. Seed is sown in spring and summer, in a well-drained, general-purpose potting soil, placed in a warm but shaded spot and kept moist. Soaking the seed overnight in warm (not hot) water is not necessary for germination to occur, but should hurry things along. Dusting the seed prior to sowing, or drenching after sowing, with a fungicide that combats pre-emergence damping off, although not essential, will increase the percentage germination.
Cuttings are best taken in spring to summer, and truncheons in late winter to spring. Truncheons are made from part of or even an entire branch which is left to dry and heal for a few days, then planted into a pot filled with sand or even directly into the soil where the plant is to be grown, and kept damp but not wet. If a plant has to be transplanted, this is best done whilst it is dormant, during winter.
Women about to give birth are given an infusion of herbs to make the birth easier, and a sliver of bark from the four sides of this plant is tied around the bundle of herbs before it is boiled. Water in which bark has been soaked is mixed with the root of a species of Cussonia and used as a purifying emetic.
The bark is applied as a poultice to treat sores, wounds, abscesses and arthritis.
Infusions of the leaves are used as ear drops to relieve earache. Crushed leaves placed on a maggot-infested wound are said to clear the maggots.
A decoction of the roots is applied to sprains.
Erythrina lysistemon does contain a large number of alkaloids that are known to be highly toxic, but its use in traditional medicine suggests that they have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects.
The seeds contain toxic alkaloids as well as anti-blood-clotting substances that may be of value in the treatment of thromboses.
The plant is used to form living fences around kraals, homesteads and waterhole.
Most Erythrina species are very easy to grow from cuttings, with even quite large branches striking well. In addition, they generally fix atmospheric nitrogen, have nutrient-rich leaves that make an excellent soil-enriching mulch, often have open crowns that do not overly restrict light, and are also often quite thorny and can provide impenetrable barriers to protect from unwelcome intrusions. Many species are therefore used as living fences to provide boundaries and livestock-proof hedges.
The flowering of the trees has been, and still is, a good signal to the people that it is time to plant their crops
The red seeds are used to make necklaces.
The wood is light and cork-like when dry and has been used for making canoes, rafts and floats for fishing nets as well as for troughs and brake-blocks. It has also been used to make shingles for roofing, as the wood is durable when tarred.
Erythrina lysistemon is not just a decorative tree, it is also an important component of the ecosystem, providing food and shelter for a variety of birds, animals and insects. Many birds and insects feed on the nectar. Vervet monkeys eat the flower buds. Kudu, klipspringer, black rhino and baboons graze on the leaves. Black rhinos, elephants and baboons eat the bark. Bush pigs eat the roots, and the brown-headed parrot eats and disperses the seed. Birds such as barbets and woodpeckers nest in the trunks of dead trees, and swarms of bees often inhabit hollow trunks.
Erythrina lysistemon is regarded as royal trees, and were planted on the graves of Zulu chiefs. They were planted as living fences around kraals, homesteads and waterholes, and were one of the first wild trees to be planted in gardens in South Africa. They are still to be found in many gardens, and are planted as street trees in many towns. The wood is light and cork-like when dry and has been used for making canoes, rafts and floats for fishing nets as well as for troughs and brake-blocks. It has also been used to make shingles for roofing, as the wood is durable when tarred. The flowering of the trees has been, and still is, a good signal to the people that it is time to plant their crops.
Erythrina lysistemon is thought to have both medicinal and magical properties by many people. A tribal chief will wash in water in which bark has been soaked as he believes that by doing this he will ensure the respect of his people. Women about to give birth are given an infusion of herbs to make the birth easier and a sliver of bark from the four sides of the tree is tied around the bundle of herbs before it is boiled.
Water in which bark has been soaked is mixed with the root of a species of Cussonia and used as a purifying emetic. Crushed leaves placed on a maggot-infested wound are said to clear the maggots. The bark applied as a poultice is used to treat sores, wounds, abscesses and arthritis. Infusions of the leaves are used as ear drops to relieve earache, and decoctions of the roots are applied to sprains.
Erythrina lysistemon does contain a large number of alkaloids that are known to be highly toxic, but its use in traditional medicine suggests that they have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. The seeds are used as lucky charms. According to Braam van Wyk and Piet van Wyk, who are indigenous tree specialists, the seeds also contain toxic alkaloids as well as anti-blood-clotting substances that may be of value in the treatment of thromboses.
All Erythrina species contain greater or lesser amounts of toxic alkaloids – these can be found in all parts of the plant but are usually most concentrated in the seeds. Concentrations vary from species to species, in some it is low enough that the plant is safely used as a food. In many, the alkaloids are utilized for their medicinal effects. We have no specific information on the concentration of the alkaloids in this species, but care should be exercised in any use of the plant that involves ingestion. These alkaloids have a curare-like action (obtained from Strychnos species) and can cause paralysis and even death by respiratory failure.
Disclaimer : The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplement, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.