What do a national icon, burning at the stake and Los Angeles have in common? The ceibo tree. 

ORIGINATING from South America, the tree Erythrina crista-galli – the ceibo – is also variously known as the coral tree, bucaré, cachimbo, coral flower, cockerel, pico de gallo, sananduva or even Christ’s Tears or Tiger’s Claw. 

In Spanish or in the native regional Guaranİ tongue, the word ‘ceibo’ is pronounced with a soft ‘C’, as in cedar or cider, so the common name is sometimes spelt as ‘seibo’ with an ‘S’ instead.

To add to the confusion, this species is sometimes wrongly labelled ‘the kapok tree’. And in an added twist, just to make matters worse, ceiba (written with an ‘a’) as opposed to ceibo is a different genus of trees entirely in the family Malvaceae, native to tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas and tropical West Africa and includes the kapok (Ceiba pentandra) tree. 

‘Flame tree’ is a further vernacular or common handle, but may refer to any one of a number of unrelated red-coloured plants as well. Many other species of the same genus Erythrina have bright red flowers, and this may be the origin of their common names.

So, yet another example of why it is often safer to use a scientific or Latin name rather than a local vernacular one. We’ll try mostly to stick with ‘ceibo’ in this article.


The flowers attract hungry insects and hummingbirds. The flowers attract hungry insects and hummingbirds. (Image: Supplied)

Erythrina crista-galli is a stunning smaller flowering tree species in the bean family – the Fabaceae – native to localities in Argentina, Uruguay, southern Brazil and Paraguay with subtropical climates. 

It is a flowering tree native to South America that can grow up to around 10 m high. The red flowers bloom from October right through to April in their native southern hemisphere.

The ceibo naturally grows wild as an understorey component of gallery forest ecosystems along watercourses, as well as in swamps and wetlands. The ceibo flourishes on the rich, wet and often flooded alluvial soils such as those along the banks of the mighty Rivers Paraná and Uruguay and the delta and estuary of the River Plate that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. 

Erythrina crista-galli is a small tree, the girth or DBH of its trunk measuring some 50 cm (20 in). Normally it grows 5–8 m (16–26 ft) tall, although some specimens, in the northern Argentine provinces of Salta, Jujuy and Tucumán, can reach 10 m (33 ft). The trunk is woody and corky with irregular, spiny branches.

Like many in the legume family, it fixes nitrogen through bacteria in nodules on its tap root. The bacteria live in symbiosis with the tree, facilitating the tree’s absorption of nitrogen in return for organic substances which the bacteria need. 

A small or low deciduous tree with spiny branches and leathery leaves composed of three triangular leaflets, with racemes or hanging bunches of deep scarlet. It is the flowers that make this tree so attractive.

Elongated clusters of 20–40 spectacular coral red flowers dangle from the tips of each branch.

As scholars of the classics will of course recognise, the tree’s scientific nomenclature of Erythrina crista-galli means red (from the Greek), comb or crest and cockerel or rooster. 

The flower is made up of five petals that resemble a cockerel or rooster’s crest. Its beauty attracts hungry insects and hummingbirds to feed on the high-octane nectar and pollinate the tree at the same time.

 The tree is native to Argentina, Uruguay, southern Brazil and Paraguay. The tree is native to Argentina, Uruguay, southern Brazil and Paraguay. (Image: Supplied)

The fruit is a typical legume: a pea- or bean-style pod a few centimetres long derived from a single carpel and containing 8–10 buoyant, chestnut-brown bean-shaped seeds that float away in the current. One normally associates tree seed dispersal with the wind or animals but flowing or lotic water can be a vital mode of transporting your DNA around too.

It has always seemed ironic to me that whilst many countries sport a nationally designated and recognised species of tree – or an official arboreal champion – on its statute books, Britain does not, apart from in name alone such as the English oak and Scots pine. 

However, since 1942, the ceibo has been both the national tree and flower of Argentina. On 22 November each year, the National Day of the Flower is celebrated in honour of its flowers. It is also the official state blossom across the River Plate in Uruguay. 

The ceibo is a symbol of both bravery and resistance in Argentina. As both its national tree and flower, the plant is mentioned widely in its culture through poetry, songs, and tradition. 


It is no wonder that such a stunningly beautiful plant has been domesticated and employed in urban settings across the world and is often cultivated in parks and avenues for its cascade of bright red flowers.

Boasting good hardiness, spectacular and long-lasting (six months) scarlet blossom, this sub-tropical waterside dweller is a must-have in horticulture and landscape gardening in amenable climates around the globe.

Adaptable to the warmer regions of the world, the brilliant long-lasting gaudy display of orange and scarlet flowers has made it widely popular among southern Californians. There this non-native is known as the ‘Coral Tree’ – and is the official city tree of Los Angeles – and can be admired in gardens and parks throughout the south of the state.

Popular in cultivation in Indonesia too, it is often called ‘Pohon’ or ‘Bunga Dadap Merah’, or the Tiger’s Claw or Coral Tree. 

When abroad, the ceibo can become a problem as an exotic weed of waterways and floodplains on its travels as in coastal areas of New South Wales in Australia.

There this exotic has gone walkabout from gardens and established itself as an invasive woody plant along watercourses as the seeds are floaters and hitch a ride to drift along in the current. 

Not often seen in cultivation here in the United Kingdom, this plant has however gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. But it comes with a warning – the ceibo has high water needs, is susceptible to limb drop, and is sensitive to frost. The RHS Plant Finder lists about a dozen suppliers here in the UK.


This plant and its showy flowers gave rise to many legends. This is one of them, told in Argentina on how the ceibo came to be. 

Folklore has it that in the subtropical forests, bathed by the mighty Paraná and Uruguay Rivers in what is now the northeast of Argentina, lived a native Indian maiden called Anahí, belonging to the tribe ‘Guayaquí’ of the Guaraní nation. 

Its men and women were characterised as jealous defenders of their natural forest homeland. This young lady loved to sing about nature and her beloved forest environment.

The native tribes resisted the incursions of the Spanish Conquistadores by force as the invaders travelled southwards through the jungle following the river systems down from the north from Alto Peru in the 16th century.  

After a bloody struggle, Anahí was taken prisoner, but one night killed the sentry guarding her and fled. But her freedom was short lived. She was recaptured and condemned to be burnt at the stake as a witch. 

The tree is often cultivated in parks, such as this one in Valencia.The tree is often cultivated in parks, such as this one in Valencia. (Image: Supplied)

Tied to a tree on the riverbank, the fire was lit one evening. Legend dictates that she sang of the glories of her native forests as the flames grew higher. 

With the first rays of the sun, the invading troops watched dumbfounded as the body of Anahí had transformed into the sturdy trunk of a beautiful tree with hanging clusters of red young flowers – the ceibo – as red as the flames that had consumed her. 

According to the story, its shiny leaves and velvet-like red blooms took the place of her body and served as a reminder of courage and power in the face of adversity.
Some sources believe that the name of the tree may be of Guaraní origin and translates as ‘flower of the sky’.


In addition to Argentina’s reverence for the ceibo, the tree is admired in other parts of the world for its stunning flowers and its antiviral and antiparasitic properties.

In common with a number of types of tree, in addition to its beautiful flowers, the ceibo’s leaves produce their own chemical self-defence mechanisms – an antiviral alkaloid compound that delights in the name of erythraline-11β-O-glucopyranoside. 

Recent studies discovered that this compound defends the tree against the debilitating and destructive Tobacco Mosaic Virus or TMV.

That affects many edible commercial crops such as tomatoes, pepper, and cucumber and is a major plant disease. The virus causes a mosaic pattern of discolouration on leaves and, soon after, most of the plant’s foliage withers and dies.

On the other hand, the ceibo’s leaves remain untouched by the virus because it produces this substance. Hopefully, with further research, this compound found naturally in the tree will lead to the prevention or treatment of TMV infection in other unrelated plants.

Flavonoids are yet another ingredient of nature’s medicine chest. These substances possess a plethora of promising medicinal benefits, including anticancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties. They also have neuro-protective and cardio-protective effects. Since various flavonoids are found in the genus Erythrina, E. crista-galli may also contain a wide variety of these metabolites.

Phaseollidin is once such flavonoid also found in other legumes and pulses like the common bean. It is believed to be one of the main active compounds with antiparasitic properties that are produced in the foliage and bark.

In the end, the ceibo’s defensive mechanisms may prove helpful for the tree and humans alike. 

And in the meantime, it is a real stunner.