Spathodea campanulata

African tulip tree


Spathodea campanulata var. aurea

P.Beauv. 1835

pronounced: spath-OH-dee-uh kam-pan-yoo-LAH-tuh

(Bignoniaceae — the jacaranda family)


common names: African tulip tree, fountain tree, flame-of-the-forest

Spathodea comes from the Greek σπαθη (spathé), a blade, and refers to the spathes in the flower; campanulata comes from the Latin campana, a bell – i.e. bell-shaped, referring to the flowers. Aurea is also from the Latin, aureus, golden, as this variety (a smaller tree) has flowers coloured orange to yellow, rather than the mainly red flower of the main species.

Although this is a very attractive tree when in flower, it easily becomes an invasive weed in the wet tropics. Not only do the seeds germinate readily, but the extensive system of roots, lying just under the surface of the soil, readily puts forth suckers.

The tree, a native of tropical Africa, grows up to 20 m tall with an open crown. When mature, the trunk develops characteristic buttresses. Its shallow root system, and its tendency for branches to break off in storms, makes it unsuitable as a roadside tree.

The opposite, pinnate leaves are up to about 20 cm long with 8 – 18 leaflets. These are leathery, shiny green above, with some hairs on the lower surface. The bell-shaped flowers, anything up to 12 cm long, are grouped in large clusters. When the calyx splits, the orange to red crinkly petals unfold. The buds and the freshly opened flowers are filled with nectar, very popular with birds. The fruit is an elongated follicle, up to 20 cm long, usually held upright. At maturity it turns brown, and splits along the side to release large numbers of winged seeds to be carried on the breeze.

The buds are often used by children as water-pistols. They also use half of the split pods as toy boats for boat races in fast-flowing drains.

In West Africa, the seeds, flowers and leaves are all used in traditional medicines. The bark has laxative and antiseptic properties: it is chewed and sprayed over swollen cheeks. The bark may also be boiled in water used for bathing newly born babies to heal body rashes.

dangerous 2It would appear that the seeds are edible (but I cannot guarantee this!), but that the other parts of the fruit are probably poisonous.
The wood of the tree is soft, and is used for nesting by some of the hole-building birds. In Africa, the soft, white timber is used for making paper, and also for making native drums and blacksmiths' bellows. Paper is also made from this wood in Singapore. In the Philippines, the tree is grown as a plantation crop and used in the making of plywood. In Ethiopia, it is used as firewood, and to produce charcoal.

The caterpillars of the moth Meganoton rufescens feed on the tree.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2005, 2011
Page last updated 6th April 2019