Orange you glad it's a native?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

First it was in, then it was out, and then it was in again. The Geiger tree (Cordia sebestena) has been

Bold orange flowers of Cordia sebestena.

the subject of debate among people devoted to natives: is it or isn’t it?

All along, however, this orange-flowering small tree has been minding its own business, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds; growing its sand-papery leaves with aplomb, and finding its way onto more street plantings, as well it should. It flourishes throughout the West Indies and Venezuela, and, some experts argue, in the lower Florida Keys and the southern tip of the peninsula. The tree has a round crown and rough bark, and may grow to about 25 feet tall.

 When John James Audubon was in the Florida Keys to paint birds, he depicted white crowned pigeons on a Geiger tree.  Key West is known to have been the home of a wrecker named Capt. John Geiger. It was Geiger, in fact, who built the Audubon House in Key West.

When the debate was more vocal on whether the Cordia was native, naturalist Dr. Roger Hammer wrote that the Geiger tree does not behave like an exotic in South Florida, seeding itself thither and yon, but has always been found sparingly in the coastal hammocks. Its salt and drought tolerances, however, are leading humans to plant it more widely.

The brilliant orange flowers occur in clusters at the tips of branches. They are wrinkly or crepe-paper-like, with white stamens creating a contrast to the corollas. Many years ago, I had a seedpod develop on a Geiger, and scarified the hard seeds to plant them. Through the fog of history, I can only remember that at least one germinated and grew because I gave it to a friend who lived near by. While I don’t actually recall what happened to either tree, my hunch is that they were killed in the freezes of the late 1980s. The leaves tend to drop in cold snaps. Geiger beetles that chew on the leaves are less likely to feed on a single tree than several planted close together.