Geiger, Audubon, and a Special Tree

In 1832, famed avian artist John James Audubon (born Jean Rabin), was visiting a friend in Key West when he gazed into a neighbor’s yard and saw a beautiful flowering tree, which we know as Cordia sebestina. So impressed was he by the tree that his later engraving of white-crowned pigeons shows the birds perched on a Cordia branch.

The neighbor of Audubon’s host was Captain John H. Geiger, Key West’s first harbor pilot and an avid plantsman. The Cordia in his yard was known locally as the Geiger Tree, and eventually several other species in the genus came to be accorded that common name. (In the late 1950s Captain Geiger’s house was about the be torn down in favor of a gas station when the Mitchell Wolfson Family Foundation donated funds for its restoration, the first to be undertaken in Key West. Fittingly, in 1960 the property at 205 Whitehead St. was opened to the public as the Audubon House Museum & Tropical Gardens.)

The Orange Geiger Tree grows at a moderate rate to about 25 ft. in height. It produces large, dark green leaves with a sandpapery texture, and it bears clusters of 2-in. wide brilliant to dark orange funnel-shaped flowers for much of the year. There has been a long-simmering controversy over whether C. sebestena is a Florida native. The species occurs naturally over a large range from the Bahamas through the Caribbean and into northern South America. It seems likely that it was introduced into Key West from Cuba.

But, native or not, the Orange Geiger has proven perfectly amenable to the poor, highly-alkaline soils which are anathema to many other plant species. In addition, it is famously tolerant of drought and salt. For best flowering, it should be grown in full sun.

The White Geiger Tree, C. boissieri, is native from South Texas into Central Mexico. Known also as the Texas Wild Olive, the species matures to 16-23 ft. in height. Its funnel-shaped white flowers are somewhat smaller than those of C. sebestena and appear pretty much year-round. C. boissieri functions as a good subtroical approximation of the Flowering Dogwood. Leaves are silvery-green in color and possess a fuzzy texture. The White Geiger is highly drought-tolerant and can withstand temperatures at least down into the low 20s. Jellies can be made from the fruit of the tree, and its leaves are said to be used in folk remedies to treat pulmonary problems and rheumatism.

The Yellow Geiger Tree, C. lutea, occurs natively in Peru and Ecuador, including the Galápagos Islands. Like C. boissieri, it matures to a height somewhere above 20 ft. It produces bright yellow, funnel-shaped, mildly fragrant flowers throughout the year, but particularly in late spring to early summer. As with the other Cordia species featured here, the Yellow Geiger is quite tolerant of drought and poor soils. In southern Florida it performs well as both a container-grown or inground tree or shrub.

The Orange, White and Yellow Geigers are available at Richard Lyon’s Nursery in various size containers.

A Bauhinia for Almost Any Landscaping Need

Bauhinia is a large genus — more than 500 species — of trees and shrubs native to both the Old World and New World tropics. Typically, their leaf pairs are arranged in a butterfly wing, or back-to-back, configuration.

Therein lies an interesting piece of folklore: Among Aboriginal Australians, it is common for spouses to be far apart in age, so that the husband and his wife’s mother are about the same age. Aboriginal custom — known as Jigal or Jugal — aims to keep those two from becoming chummy. They are forbidden from facing each other directly, so the back-to-back Bauhinia leaves exemplify the desired relationship. Accordingly, Aboriginals refer to Bauhinia species as Mother-in-Law/Son-in-Law Trees.

We at Richard Lyons’ Nursery have no intention of prying into your familial life, but would instead like to recommend several Bauhinia species for your consideration:

Bauhinia acuminata — This Asian native, commonly known as the Dwarf White Bauhinia or White Orchid Tree, reaches just 6-10 ft. tall at maturity. It blooms most of the year in southern Florida, producing beautiful white, fragrant flowers. This species is quite amenable to container culture. Like all Bauhinias, it flowers most prolifically when grown in full sun.

Bauhinia blakeana — This tree was discovered on the grounds of a monastery in Hong Kong. It may be a hybrid between B. variegata and B. purpurea, It was adopted as the floral emblem of Hong Kong in 1965 and now also appears on the territory’s flag, coat of arms, and coins. What makes the tree so popular is its orchid-like, showy, large purple-magenta flowers. In southern Florida, it blooms from November to April, thus making it a significant nectar source for the hummingbirds that overwinter in the region. B. blakeana reaches 20-40 ft. in height, with a crown spread of 20-25 ft.

Bauhinia divaricata — Commonly known as the Butterfly Orchid Tree or Mexican Orchid Tree, this small-statured species produces airy pink and white flowers virtually year-round. It has an attractive spreading crown and matures to 12-20 ft. in height. It is a valuable nectar source not only for butterflies — especially the Giant Swallowtail — but also ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Bauhinia galpinii — This species, native to parts of southern and eastern Africa, is a spreading shrub, maturing to dimensions of 8-10 ft. high and 10-15 ft. wide. It makes an excellent subject to grow on an espalier, and can be cut back hard without repercussions. Its red-orange flowers appear profusely during the warmer parts of the year, attracting butterflies. B. galpinii is cold-hardy down to at least the upper 20s. Once established, it is both drought- and wind-tolerant.

Bauhinia grandidieri — This is another dwarf species that can be espaliered. Because of its small leaves, it also has proven popular for bonsai and general container culture. Its orchid-like flowers are bluish-purple in hue, appearing during the warmer times of the year. B. grandidieri should be grown in well-drained soil.

Bauhinia rufescens — Native to northeastern Africa, this is another small-leafed species and, like the others, it makes an excellent subject for bonsai culture. To get some idea of its drought-resistance, consider that it is deemed the most palatable camel browse in the Sudan. That trait also hints at its ability to spring back from heavy pruning, even if you don’t have a camel. It flowers in a range from white to greenish-yellow, and has a pleasant fragrance.

Bauhinia tomentosa — This Bauhinia has been accorded many common names, incuding St. John’s Tree, Yellow Bauhinia, and Yellow Bell Orchid Tree. It is normally multi-stemmed, reaching a height of about 12 ft. at maturity. Its species name refers to its sometimes-fuzzy bark. Drooping branches and bell-shaped, yellow flowers — with a maroon blotch in the center — make B. tomentosa a popular ornamental plant.

Hibiscus That Tastes Like Cranberry Sauce!!!

It sounds like a headline out of the National Enquirer, but it’s true. Hibiscus sabdariffa, commonly known as roselle, not only has the capacity to taste like our popular condiment, but it has other tasty and valuable properties as well.

As with many plants whose usefulness has led to their introduction to lots of places, there is a bit of mystery as to where H. sabdariffa is native. Many experts believe that it originated in Western Africa, although others contend that it is native to a swath of countries from India to Malaysia.

Roselle is a small shrub that matures in the 3-4 ft. range. It produces red flowers 3-4 in. in diameter. The floral parts known as sepals and calyces are used to make a variety of teas and cold drinks around the world. Throughout the Caribbean, for instance, the drink known as sorrel is made by boiling the sepals and calyces of Roselle. In addition, the calyces can be turned into a sauce or pie filling by boiling them with sugar. It is that concoction that is a dead ringer for cranberry sauce in taste.

Dried calyces are pressed into large spheres or cakes and shipped to European countries for use in flavoring liqueurs. The leaves of H. subdriffa are also valuable. They can be cut up into salads or soups, or dried, steamed, or fried in a number of other dishes.

Fiber from the stems of roselle is used to fabricate a substitute for jute in burlap bags, but the plant has long been incorporated into folk remedies around the world. It has begun to gain scientific attention for its possible medicinal properties.

Roselle has a long history in Florida. One authority believes that the plant was introduced to Florida about 1887 from Jamaica. Plants of H. sabdariffa appear to have been grown at the USDA subtropical lab in Eustis in the 1890s, but they were wiped out by the famed 1895 freeze, the same event that gave rise to the legend of Julia Tuttle’s gift of fresh citrus flowers to Henry Flagler as a come-on to extend his railroad to Miami. Just after the turn of the 20th century, roselle was said to be commonly grown in southern Florida; at some point, calyces were sold in local markets. It remained a popular garden crop in southern and central Florida until just past World War II.

With a track record of well over 100 years of cultivation in southern Florida, there’s no question that the versatile roselle can handle the region’s limestone-based soils. Richard Lyons’ Nursery has two cultivars of H. sabdariffa, one with green leaves and one with red leaves. The plants are available in 1- and 3-gal. containers.

Don’t Delay Hurricane Preparation

We’re already well into the 2017 hurricane season, and so far southern Florida has been spared. But recent reassessments by the various tropical weather monitoring entities have led them to predict a higher probability of storm activity than they originally foresaw. Consequently, if you still have some preparations to make, we at Richard Lyons’ Nursery recommend that you take care of them as soon as possible.

With respect to your yard, you should pick up and store any loose containers; an airborne clay pot can inflict lots of damage. Beyond that, your primary concern should be the condition of your trees. Selective pruning can open up the canopy of trees so that wind can move through them more readily. A tree that is allowed to develop a very dense canopy will be more prone to breaking or falling over during hurricanes or even tropical storms.

In Miami-Dade County, a homeowner can call 311 to arrange for a bulky waste pickup. Alternatively, an appointment can be made online at

However, there is a critical issue to consider when assembling a trash pile: Once an appointment is made, the county has nine calendar days in which to make a pickup. If there is a lot of tropical weather activity in the Caribbean, Gulf or Atlantic, you would be safer leaving your trees unpruned, rather than to have trimmings on the ground with a storm looming. This risk accentuates the importance of wrapping up your hurricane preparation as soon as possible.


Imbe: The Queen of Fruits?

A few years ago, a weekly newspaper in southern Africa published an article entitled “Imbe: The Queen of Fruits.” Given the wealth of delicious tropical fruit species, that’s a bold claim. The ownership and staff at Richard Lyons’ Nursery aren’t willing to go that far, but for several other reasons we are confident in recommending imbe (Garcinia livingstonei) for use in your yard.

What the African newspaper was really getting at was imbe’s potential as a food crop. It is a relative of the mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana), the source of a superb-tasting fruit, but ungrowable in southern Florida. Imbe, on the other hand, grows well here and produces a tasty, orange-pink skinned fruit. But because the seed takes up a lot of space in the fruit, it currently has little commercial value. Some day hybridization may resolve that problem; nevertheless, imbe in its current form makes a very good landscape plant.

Imbe is native to a variety of soil types in Africa, and consequently is very forgiving of Florida’s mediocre soils. It is also happy in a broad range of moisture conditions, although it will fruit more prolifically if irrigated regularly. G. livingstonei tolerates cold temperatures down at least into the high 20s. It grows very deliberately to a mature height of about 15-20 ft., and therefore will not outgrow most gardens. It develops an attractive assymetrical trunk. In fact, one commentator has likened its form to “a piece of angular modern sculpture….”

livingstonei— the species is named for THE Dr. Livingstone — produces fragrant flowers and attracts avian life. The fruit is quite nutritious, and there is some thought that it possesses anti-cancer properties. (One study has found that the plant’s leaves contain anti-bacterial compounds.)

The fruit is usually eaten fresh, but also makes a good jam or jelly, and can be incorporated into ice cream and milkshakes.

Imbe is ordinarily dioecious; that is, both male and female plants are necessary to produce fruit. However, in rare instances a single specimen contains both sexes, and such a plant is the source of the G. livingstonei plants available at Richard Lyons’ Nursery.