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Species Spotlight

Southwestern Coral Bean

by Doug Moore

Along the road near White House Picnic Area, coral bean bushes grow up between cracks in the rocks. Merely a group of thorny leafless stalks through much of the year, in summer and fall these multi-stemmed shrubs are conspicuous with their large bright green leaves shaped like those of cottonwood or aspen. Among the leaves hang long bean pods, which dry and split open in the sun to disgorge their poisonous scarlet beans upon the ground.

Southwestern coral bean (Erythrina flabelliformis) is a member of a worldwide group of sub-tropical to tropical trees and shrubs. Its range extends north from Mexico just into the United States in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Other species are found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and even Hawaii. Growing in a narrow band between the heat and aridity of the upper Sonoran desert and the cold and frost of the oak woodlands in our area, coral bean stems do not grow very tall, usually freezing back to the height of the surrounding rocks in winter. Farther south in Mexico where frosts do not occur, the plants grow into small trees up to 15 ft. tall.

In the spring, coral beans send up stems that produce clusters of long, narrow flowers of brilliant red before any leaves appear. Hummingbirds are attracted to the blooms, pollinating the plant as they probe the blossoms for nectar. The large leaves appear in profusion after the flowers, eventually turning bright yellow with the change of the seasons and providing a splash of fall color. In the canyon these plants also can be found among the streamside boulders from below the waterfall at Proctor Road up to the Madera Picnic Area.

Photo by George West