Flame tree


The flame tree out-flames them all.

Flamin' 'eck

‘Flame’ isn’t just about fires; it’s one of those words that’s used all over the place. You can have a flaming row with your wife. She can be ‘flaming impossible’. Mind you, I haven’t actually heard that expression used for real since the late seventies, to be fair. It only tends to be uttered by self-righteous types who avoid profanities by coming out with phrases like ‘blinking heck’.

Then there are the flamers. This term could well describe a gentlemen who has a bit of a penchant for the color pink, walks around with a sweater draped over his shoulder (arms possibly loosely tied at the front), carries a little chihuahua dog around, prefers the company of his own gender and possibly calls himself “Bunny”. For once I’m trying to be politically correct here. I think I’m failing miserably.

It can equally refer to an alcoholic drink. Isn’t a flaming sambuca some kind of licorice-tasting concoction consumed by drunken young ladies from Essex who have drunk the bar dry of Babycham? I’ve never tried the stuff but I have to say that it does sound a bit dodgy.

Those of a geeky persuasion will perhaps spend many hours in front of their computers in those message board websites, exchanging witty and incisive remarks with their geeky friends online. It’s weird that anyone that doesn’t quite agree with anything that they have to say is immediately branded as a flamer. Apparently.

And how about the variations on the theme, ‘inflammatory and ‘inflammable’? Why could ‘inflammatory’ possibly mean to insult someone or upset them? Surely inflammatory remarks should be a positive thing? I always thought of myself as bit of a cunning linguist, but perhaps not.

‘Inflammable’ is even more bizarre – this is one I will never understand. If something is ‘inflammable’, surely you would presume that it was impossible to set alight; basically fireproof. But no. The outside of a gallon container of petrol or a container of metholated sprits will inevitably bear the words. ‘highly inflammable’. I’m no chemical engineer, but given the fact that if you wave something hot near these liquids they will inevitably bust into flames immediately, is this not a little confusing?

Trees aren’t known to burst into flames, although they do say that in Australia, regular forest fires are a natural part of the life cycles of the ecology of some areas, and that these fires do the plants and trees there a lot of good.

You need more than a little imagination to see spontaneous combustion in trees here in Phuket – several bottles of Heineken would probably help too. (By the way, Mr Phuket Heineken rep – how many times do I need to mention your product in these weekly ramblings for you to drop off a case or two at the Gazette offices?) You’ve got to try.

Back to the flame tree, anyway. It’s one of the most spectacular trees you’ll see on the island. Officially known as the royal Poinciana, or XXXX in Thai, it somehow symbolizes the dry season here in Phuket, with its vivid blooms of orange and red. I don’t think anything in the flowering tree world can quite equal a royal poinciana for sheer gaudiness during full bloom. It’s actually a bit of a show-off, to be honest.

The royal poinciana is a decent-sized tree and spreads branches out horizontally like a giant umbrella. There’s no point in chucking this one in a pot on your balcony – it needs a fairly large open space so that the crown can spread out comfortably. Expect 15-meter heights and spreads of 20-meters plus.

It’s also one of the fast growing trees around, shooting skyward at a rate about a meter and a half per year until maturity. It’s tolerant of a wide range of well drained soils from acidic to alkaline and from loamy to gravelly, and is fairly salt-tolerant too. Just as well, really. It’s probably best to provide protection from strong winds, as the braches tend to catch wind like a huge sail. It does well in sunny, dry locations without too much baby-sitting. 

The tree’s grayish-colored bark is smooth, and the feathery, fernlike leaves are twice-pinnate. In normal English, that basically means that each leaf is made up of leaflets that grow in two rows along a stem, and the leaflets themselves are composed of smaller leaflets that grow in the same way.

The blossoms are 7 to 10 cm across with five wide sepals (petal-like flower coverings) and five petals. The sepals are red inside, yellow on their curling edges, and green outside. The petals are usually red, but occasionally one petal may have yellow stripes or a yellow splotchy bit.

At the base of each petal is a long, claw-shaped structure. The flowers develop into flat, dangling seedpods that are up to 60 cm long. These pods turn dark brown as they mature and remain on the tree for a year or more. In some areas the pods are gathered and used as fuel.

This impressive tree does have a few negatives, though: branch and twig drop, messy pods, fine leaves that clog gutters and pool pumps as well as staining. The tree’s shallow roots grab extra water, and lawns and other plantings can have a bit of a rough time trying to grow under the tree, as it casts quite a heavy shade. Perfect for sitting under with a beer, but not so good for other plantlife.

Watering may cause leaves to remain on the tree longer, but too much disturbs the bloom cycle, and causes a scattering of blooms over a longer period. Irrigated trees may also develop root rot and have decay problems. You’ll need to prune carefully (if at all) as the soft wood rots fairly easily. 

Originally native to Madagascar, and a member of the legume family, the royal poinciana is now widely cultivated all over warmer parts of the globe. You’ll see the flame tree adorning avenues, parks and estates in tropical cities throughout the world.

The flame tree is even known as the flamboyant in some parts of the world – as it’s a blatant show-off, it’s probably a bit of a flamer in its own right. Were it human, it would probably be a flaming sambuca/Babycham-drinking Essex girl rather than “Bunny” though. It’s a little large to drape a pink sweater around it.

Incidentally, Mr Phuket Heineken rep – the Gazette offices are on Yaowarat Road in Phuket town. Cheers.


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