Tell the truth: If you dream of a vacation to a tropical paradise, do you immediately turn to the romantic image of swaying palm trees in the sunset? Palm fronds, arching trunks and an occasional dropping coconut probably abound, too. While the silhouette of a stately palm against a marvelous sky is indeed beautiful, it’s the tropical trees that help make the tropics “perfect one day, beautiful the next.”
Hong Kong orchid tree (Bauhinia blakeana) competes with bougainvillea for attention in the warm, dry winter months.
Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer
Royal poinciana (Delonix regia) is regarded as the world’s most beautiful flowering tree. It blooms at the beginning of the hot tropical rainy season after a long drought.
Photo Credit: Carol Cloud Bailey
Jacaranda trees (Jacaranda) bloom in March in Honolulu and Tampa, but not until early June in Los Angeles.
Photo Credit: Forest and Kim Starr
White shaving brush tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum ‘Album’), left, blooms during the cool midwinter, while Milky Way tree (Stemmadenia littoralis), right, blooms during warm, humid, rainy months.
Photo Credit: James Burghardt
Shower-of-gold (Cassia fistula) bears hanging clusters of cheerful yellow flowers after a long winter or spring drought.
Photo Credit: Forest and Kim Starr
The flowers of lavender trumpet tree (Handroanthus impetiginosus) announce the end of the cool winter dry season in subtropical regions. (In Florida, that means March.)
Photo Credit: Carol Cloud Bailey
Some of the most magnificent plants in the tropics produce amazing floral displays. Always overshadowed by palms, tropical flowering trees mustn’t become the forgotten beauty in your travels, whether it’s to Honolulu, San Diego, Miami, Rio or Bangkok.
When not in bloom, tropical trees create the billowy backdrop that accentuates the visually stunning silhouettes of palms. Trees also cast that dense shade so welcome after a long, active day in the hot sunshine. Smart tourists even time their vacations to coincide with the blooming season of the most magnificent tropical trees…or maybe due to cheaper airfares. No matter the reason, if a palm could talk, it would complain with jealousy about their tree neighbors with the colorful flowers that always yield “oohhs” and “ahhhs” from passersby and get the most camera attention.
Most Americans enjoy a temperate climate with multiple seasons. Subtropical and tropical lands nearer the equator do not experience four seasons in name. Instead, alternating cycles of wet and dry occur. Flowering trees in these areas bloom based on environmental triggers, like temperature, along with moist or dry soil. Some trees bloom like clockwork every year during the dry season, while others burst into flower when the rainy season returns. Tourists typically aim to visit the tropics during the dry season, when rain clouds are absent, humidity levels comfortable and temperatures warm. Cheaper airfare and hotel costs occur in the rainy season, when it’s hot and sultry, sunlight scorching and stinging, and tropical storms a reality.
In regions with no (or only brief encounters with) winter frosts – USDA Zone 9b and warmer – the number of tropical trees for the garden increases greatly. Regardless of the time of year, there’s a flowering tree to admire alongside your favorite swaying palms. The legume family (Fabaceae) includes some of the world’s finest flowering trees. The sheer number of breathtaking bloomers in this family is mind-boggling. Three other families in particular contain spectacular tropical flowering trees: the trumpet creeper family (Bignoniaceae), dogbane (or periwinkle) family (Apocynaceae) and kapok (or bombax) family (Bombacaceae).
Blazing Red Flowers
Red-flowering trees are attention-grabbing when in bloom. At the middle or end of the dry season – the tropical winter – anticipate Australian flame tree (Brachychiton acerifolius), as well as a wide variety of coral trees (Erythrina), to burst into arresting bloom. Red kapok or red-cotton tree (Bombax ceiba produces glossy, red, cup-shaped flowers in late winter. Just before the start of the warm rainy season, the flamboyant or royal poinciana (Delonix regia) bedazzles the tropical landscape. (To most eyes, the flowers look scarlet, but some trees may border on orange.) Other red-flowering trees, blooming during the warmer months, include the long john tree (Triplaris cumingiana), rose-of-Venezuela (Brownea grandiceps), Panama flame (Brownea macrophylla), firewheel tree (Stenocarpus sinuatus) and the pride-of-Burma (Amherstia nobilis. And the pendulous flowers of the sausage tree (Kigelia africana) are a deep mahogany-red.
An allusive natural flower color, blue to blue-violet flowers are among the most prized of tropical flowering trees. The most famous may be jacaranda trees (Jacaranda mimosifolia and Jacaranda cuspidifolia), which bloom in spring with drooping trumpet-shaped bells. Lignum vitaes (Guaiacum) are extremely slow-growing, small, beachside trees with heavy, dense wood. Their tiny, dainty flowers are five-petaled stars and occur most heavily in late spring to early summer.
On a cloudy day, white-flowering tropical trees aren’t as breathtaking as when a dark blue sky or dark green tree is in the background. Among the most ornate white bloomers are the teak (Tectona grandis), baobab (Adansonia digitata), Milky Way tree (Stemmadenia litoralis), Brazilian cordia (Cordia superba), tree lily (Portlandia grandiflora) and the white shaving brush tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum ‘Album’). For lovely perfume, sniff the angelic flowers of white kopsia (Kopsia arborea), needle-flower tree (Posoqueria latifolia), white champak (Michelia x alba) and the pong-pong (Cerbera manghas).
Depending on the depth of pigment, orange flowers may seem more scarlet – or vice versa. Consistently orange flowers, not scarlet or red-leaning, develop on the autumn-flowering Colville’s glory (Colvillea racemosa). Other orange bloomers include the African tuliptree (Spathodea campanulata), which blooms across the warmest months. In the late winter dry season, the flame-of-the-forest (Butea monosperma) fills its bare branches with parrot beak-shaped petals. Ashoka tree (Saraca indica), under which Buddha was reputed to have been born, bears tiny gold-orange flowers that turn reddish-orange in spring.
Most of the showiest tropical flowering trees produce yellow blossoms. A wide array of trees in the closely-related genera Cassia and Senna need mention. Among the beautiful yellow-blooming trees include the shower-of-gold (Cassia fistula), gold medallion tree (Cassia leptophylla), African laburnum (Cassia afrofistula), Queensland shower (Cassia queenslandica) and the scrambled-egg tree (Senna surattensis). For midsummer beauty, the copperpods (Peltophorum) won’t disappoint.
Lesser known yellow-flowering examples include the Nile tulip tree or siala (Markhamia lutea), golden chain tree (Lophanthera lactescens), golden bouquet tree (Deplanchea tetraphylla) and the rare-occurring yellow royal poinciana (Delonix regia var. flava). The flowers of ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) are better detected by their heavenly scent than their faint creamy-yellow, ribbon-like petals. Champak’s (Michelia champaca) fragrant blooms open yellow but change to yellow-orange with age. To announce the end of the winter dry season, there’s nothing more celebratory than trumpet trees (Tabebuia) in bloom. Buttercup tree or Brazilian rose (Cochlospermum vitifolium) is a welcome site in the dead of the winter drought.
Pink to Violet and Beyond
Pink, fuchsia, violet, lavender and purple are also used to describe the blooms of many other tropical beauties. Hong Kong orchid tree (Bauhinia blakeana) and others in the genus produce pink, white or fuchsia flowers from fall to spring. Glorytrees (Tibouchina) bloom in rosy-purple to violet during warm months.
One of the most glorious of pink-blooming trees is the apple-blossom cassia (Cassia javanica). Floss silk tree (Chorisia speciosa), with its thorny trunk, dons pink and white flowers in the dry season on its leafless limbs. A prized timber tree, lavender trumpet tree (Handroanthus impetiginosus has lavender-rose flowers that rival an early springtime display of cherry blossoms in Washington, DC.
So go ahead and rave over the darlings of the tropical world – the palms. Just don’t become so cold as to disregard their prettier tropical brethren – flowering trees. Enjoy their blooms alongside those picturesque palms, or better yet, plant more tropical flowering trees if your climate allows. These botanical beauties will always warm your heart with yearly bouquets of thank-you flowers.