May 9th, 2008
Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea

coral bean
Erythrina herbacea. Austin, TX

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.

by M Sinclair Stevens

23 Responses to post “Coral Bean, Erythrina herbacea”

  1. From Gail:

    Wow, that is a stunning color and plant. It exudes heat, one doesn’t expect that from a legume….I think of a legume in cool colors.

    This plant indeed makes red a favorite color.

    I love the shape of the flowers. The remind me of a lipstick display. They don’t look so orange and hot in real life. It is a deep, cool red. — mss

  2. From deb:

    That is a beautiful flower. I love it.

  3. From Jenn:

    Wow. LOVE that color. I’ve been looking at this plant online for a while now, and all the colors I find are salmons and paler reds. Is yours from a local source? Do they do mail order?

    FABulous color.

    I bought it at Barton Springs Nursery. It’s the only color I’ve ever seen. — mss

  4. From Lori, Austin TX:

    You know, you’ve really put your finger on the whole color thing– the marigolds vs poppies were the perfect example. I too tend to not like red, but yesterday at Barton Springs Nursery, I was floored by their coral bean in full bloom. It would clash with everything in my yard, but I was tempted anyway. I settled for himalayan indigo instead.

    I’m glad that you were struck by the same idea. I used to say I hated red flowers until I looked around my garden and realized how many I had. I knew something else had to be factoring in. — mss

  5. From Frances (Tennessee):

    What a glorious flower, and you captures it beautifully with the sun shining through. I have never seen it before and love the color, even darker in real life, you say? We would have to grow it in a large pot that would be wintered over inside, but it might be worth it to get those kinds of blooms. Thanks for showing it.

    Yes, the color is darker and less orange. I’ll take another photo of the whole plant so you can get a better idea. It probably could be grown in a large pot. The flowering season is pretty short. I wonder if growing it in a pot could lengthen it. If it seeds, I’ll send you some so you can try it. — mss

  6. From Annie in Austin:

    What a wonderful series of posts you’ve made while I was gone, MSS – hoes wearing boots, sad photos of dead frogs, essays on Jefferson and records, and lovely plants like your Silverado Iris, crinum and now this coral bean, which is filling me with plant lust! I’ve seen them once in awhile, and the color would be great in my hummingbird garden but I’ve never tried to grow one. The odds are too high they’ll be hardy in Central Austin and freeze up here.
    Some of the red salvias have colors that are impossible for me to photograph. They have so much refinement and depth in real life but are so flat and dull on the page.

    Sometime I’d like to see the boots on the gardener instead of on the hoe ;-]

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    I’ll be sure to wear my boots the next time I visit you. Just don’t make me walk too far in them. The coral bean does freeze to the ground. I think it has about the same hardiness as duranta or Tecoma stans. All very similar habits. I do sometimes cover it if it’s going to be below 25F degrees. Reds are hard to photograph, aren’t they! — mss

  7. From Steve Mudge(Fort Worth):

    How amazing…the subject of Coral Trees came up in the FW Botanic Garden last week and I waxed on how many kinds grew in my native So. California…come to find out that the gardens have two kinds here–Erythrina crista-gallii and Erythrina x bidwilli ( a cross between the crista-gallii and herbecea). Cool! They freeze back every year but the crista–gallii even survived the winter of 1983. I think I’ve read that the native E. herbecea is winter hardy up into the Red River.

    Now you’re really making me want to come up an see the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. — mss

  8. From Mr. McGregor's Daughter:

    You must really like this plant to cut down a tree for it. ;^) Your coral bean is a garden diva!

    The coral bean is quite the showstopper. I didn’t cut down a tree. I cut down a Chinaberry. Them is weeds. Big weeds. And I didn’t do it for the sake of the coral bean. That was simply an unintended consequence. — mss

  9. From Bonnie:

    We discovered one of these in my mother-in-law’s garden when she moved here and it has just bloomed for the first time for her. So gorgeous. I’m contemplating how to collect the seeds. Any knowledge on that?

    When I was researching this article I came across some notes at Dave’s Garden that made me think it was possible, perhaps even easy, to grow coral bean from seed. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m going to this year. — mss

  10. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    This enticing post and seeing the plant in a garden last weekend made me susceptible to an impulse buy at Hill Country Water Gardens today. Now that I have it at home, where in the world will I put it? Sadly, in rereading your post I see that the bloom time is short. I was thinking that it would bloom all summer. So it spends the rest of the summer just getting bigger and growing thorns?

    Well, Pam. You know you always get ten times the flowers I do, so it may just be a problem with me. But the habit seems rather like Texas mountain laurel–it blooms and sets seeds and that’s it. Maybe dead-heading would make a difference. I’ll have to experiment. — mss

  11. From Jan:

    I have a related tree in my garden, the crybaby tree. Last summer I saw a coral bean tree in bloom for the first time and had to have one. I bought a small one in the fall and kept it protected. Now it is in the ground and growing fast. I can hardly wait until it is bloom size. You are right about the gorgeous red color.

    Always Growing

    I’ll have to look up the crybaby tree. Sounds interesting. — mss

  12. From Carol, May Dreams Gardens:

    What you wrote about flower colors is very insightful. I don’t like red flowers but I loved those oxblood lilies you had blooming in late summer (that was the name of them, right?). And could that coral bean be any other color, other than red?

    Flower form, time of bloom, what else is around the flower, all that factors in to how I feel about the color, too.

    But I’m still don’t care too much for red flowers…

    Me either. I find it odd that I have so many. It makes for an unintentionally patriotic color scheme when my favorite blue and white flowers bloom at the same time. That’s why I started planting oranges and yellow, too. — mss

  13. From Kim/Blackswampgirl (OH):

    That is a beautiful flower.

    I’m laughing at your comments on how you don’t say “I don’t like X color”… because in reading that, I thought, “Well, I could say that I don’t like red roses.” And then I realized that I HAVE a red rose–my beloved ‘Dortmund’–but it’s not a double so I don’t think of it when I think of “red rose.”

    That’s my roundabout way of saying: “You know what, MSS? You’re completely right!” 🙂

    Thanks. It’s taken me decades but I’m finally learning not to make blanket statements. It seems there is always an exception. — mss

  14. From Linda in Seguin, Texas:

    If you live this way The Green gate Nursery on State Hwy 123 HAS 1 GALLON POTS FOR $2.95! I bought some today. TRUST ME THAT’S A BARGAIN!!!!! They also have larger sizes. In March I received one from Rainbow Gardens in SA,Tx and it cost $15.95 for a gallon pot. I have the native coral bean all over my 10 acres outside Seguin, Texas but NOTHING compares to the native mixed with the S. Amerian native. It is STUNNING to say the least. Everybody ought to have one, even if yours freezes just replace it every year. It is so worth it. It is a hummingbird magnet and a feast for the eyes. It propogates sooooooooooo easy from cuttings.
    Get one today.

  15. From Cindy from San Antonio, Texas:

    Please help… I have the “coral bean” plant seeds (beans) and I want to plant them. Do I have to do anything to the bean before placing it in the ground, and when would be a good time to start planting them?

  16. From Lorraine Schmiege, Athens, Greece:

    I started erythrina crista-gallii from seed this spring. It was easy and I now have 3 plants in pots. They are 2 feet high. I put the seeds into potting soil and lightly cover them with plastic to keep them warm and moist.
    I had another erythrina without thorns with very different leaves that lasted a number of years and then froze. Fortunately I had a few seeds which I planted and that plant had flowers this summer. I picked off the flowers and it flowered again and is now setting seeds. Since I lost it once I now put it into the green house during our winter in Athens. We sometimes get over a foot of snow although it doesn’t last and the temperatures rarely go below freezing, but you take your chances with tropical plants.

  17. From Alba New Braunfels TX:

    I enjoyed looking at your photos, and reading your comments. I went on the hunt to find this plant. Shulze Nursery in Marion, about 5 miles from New Braunfels, was the only place that I could find it. I purchased a 1 qt size plant for my mother, and a 12 inch tall 1 gal size for myself, and planted them in mid July. Mine receives full sun, has given and still is giving a steady stream of flame red flowers, is 4 feet tall and 6 feet around, and has gone from having 2 pencil thin stems, to 4 2-inch trunks at the base.
    My mothers, is in the shade and has grown three inches, and no flowers. Guess it is time to move it to the sun.
    Does this plant have a seed pod, or does it just drop the seeds?

  18. From huge jeans:

    In my old family house I shared the same age as a tree in the back yard. The benefit of the blooms and creatures that feed on the tree outway the thorns which can be knocked off the main trunk and won’t grow back so you can climb it or place a tree house in. The outer branches don’t hold weight when climbed on either. My mother hit the roof one time when I cut the tree right back only to find it come back more beautiful. Yes very weather tolerant as well, Eug.

  19. From judith Czubati, Spring, TX:

    Have wonderful Coral Bean tree that grew from a skinny little sad “stick” and love it. However, the last cold spell zapped the leaves. Will it survive the winter here?

  20. From Eric:

    I just planted one yesterday. Chose an area that gets full sun. Also planted it near some other nectar plants in my yard around a bird feeder. Smallish in size. But it has buds on it. I am excited, waiting for it to bloom. Will it grow fast?

  21. From Camille. In Fredericksburg,Tx:

    Is the coral bean deer resistant?

    I don’t know. I don’t live where deer are a problem. — mss

  22. From Sealy,xt:

    Where in the Houston/Katy area can I purchase a Coral Bean Plant. I have some of the flowers from a plant but I see no seeds. Where are the seeds on the plant?

  23. From MC/Port Arthur, tx:

    I am also looking for a coral bean plant, but have not been able to find one in my area. I would appreciate any information you guys can share with where to buy 1.