coral bean
Erythrina herbacea. Austin, TX

May 9th, 2008
Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea

I no longer say things like “I don’t like red flowers” because I’ve realized that the color of a flower affects me differently depending on the texture and shape of the flower. When I think of marigolds, I don’t like orange. But when I think of California poppies, orange becomes my favorite color. And when I see coral bean, I suddenly love red flowers.

Coral bean, Erythrina herbacea, unfolds huge panicles of a satisfyingly deep red that makes the nearby red yucca look washed out. I find the color difficult to capture. Photos taken in the shade make the red too dull and purple. Photos, like these, taken in the sunlight turn the color more orange than they look to the naked eye.

coral bean

The coral bean is an undemanding plant. Here in Austin it dies down to the ground every winter but is root hardy. In the spring it grows fairly large (about the size of a duranta or esperanza) before flowering in late April or early May. The deep red flowers attract both hummingbirds and butterflies. The heart-shaped leaves are large and tropical-looking but it can take the heat. I bought mine in a 2-gallon pot in 2003 and it survived the drought of 2006.

Coral bean blooms better in sun. Last year the spot it was in was so overshadowed by trees that it didn’t bloom at all. Now that I’ve cut down the Chinaberry tree it’s getting both early morning and mid-afternoon sun and flowering better.

Coral bean is not a child-friendly plant. It is quite thorny and its seeds are poisonous.

Garden History

Suffering from neglect. Cut back all the dead branches which is almost 2/3s at the top. There is some new growth near the base, with buds. Topdress with two tubs of sifted compost, an inch of Revitalizer, and 3 handfuls of bone meal. Fork in and pull up big dry clods of clay. After it is well worked in, water, and mulch with Texas native hardwood mulch.

The coral bean looked like it was recovering but in the last two weeks it just died back. AJM cut it back to the ground with the reciprocating saw. I have a slim hope that, like in a hard freeze, it might come back from the roots. But, the stump looks pretty dead. R.I.P.