Thursday, September 18, 2008

Caballero (Caesalpinia pulcherrima)

Finally, a caballero tree has graced us with its presence! A pink one, too. Though it is a very easy tree to grow, I've not been successful at all these past years. I scored some seeds from a plant in Bacolod (3 years ago!). Months back, I broadcasted a bunch of old mixed seeds by the entrance to the front lot, and this just popped up afterwards.

I very much love the color of the blooms, which are darker than the pinks I see. Pink itself is not very common among caballeros, they are usually red-orange and/or yellow. This is what I observe around, and an image search confirms that this is probably true for the rest of the world:

I am unable to figure out why the plant is called caballero, Spanish for "horse-rider", some kind of knight or anything similarly gentlemanly. It has no indigenous names (aside from bulaklak ng paraiso or "flower of paradise", which still uses a Spanish word) tells us it arrived on our shores after we were colonized.

Barbados has a cute little rendering of it on their Queen's flag. It is considered to be an introduced (sometimes invasive) species everywhere except in the West Indies. However, a Harvard professor wonders in a very interesting article if it was brought there by African slaves.

The plant is a beautiful way to get nitrogen into the ground. It's probably been around long enough in the country to have the corresponding native nitrogen-fixing bacteria readily available in the soil. The leaves are also small and decompose fast, and the seeds are popped out of the pod. Branches grow quickly after cutting and using for mulch, and the tree does not grow very tall either-- usually just above a one-story home.

There are thorns on the trunk and branches, though, and the roots are poisonous. I interpret these as signals that it is indeed a pioneer tree, ready to act on poor soil and keep botherers like people out while it regenerates! At the same time, it attracts butterflies, which are its main pollinators.

The whole plant has a long history of medicinal use in other countries, but in the Philippines only one area has been reported to use them (in La Union, where a decoction of its parts is used for a laxative or to stimulate menstruation). This is perhaps evidence of its fairly recent introduction, because usually Pinoys are all over a plant for folk uses.

The bark is used as to make a healing and disinfecting mouthwash. The plant parts are used in a similar way as they do in La Union, and also to abort babes.

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