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Spectacular trees for small spaces

Gardeners sometimes hesitate to plant trees lest they swallow up precious garden area. But here in the tropics we have a whole treasury of strikingly beautiful but affordable — in terms of space — flowering trees suitable for small gardens.

All the trees described below can also be planted in large tubs in full sun on a terrace or balcony, where they will not grow to their full size but will flower. All of these are also easy-care trees that will thrive in ordinary garden soil and need only minimal watering once they are established.

The first three trees described here are deciduous; that is, they completely shed their leaves before flowering. They need a distinct dry period to flower their best.

When they start shedding their leaves reduce watering until new buds start appearing, then water normally.

Indian Coral Tree (Erythrina Indica)

The Indian coral tree is a dazzler; yet it’s one of the easiest of trees to grow. It is a plant-and-forget tree until, in February-March, the leafless tree surprises you with its profusion of large, brilliant red flowers. Fast-growing and hardy, it will grow on poor soil and in dry areas with no care. However, it hates to be waterlogged, so take care not to overwater it. The coral tree is very easy to propagate from seed or large cuttings; even a branch cut and used as a stake or fence post will often root and grow.

Other Erythrinas worth growing are E. variegata (green and yellow striped leaves, orange flowers); E. crista-galli (orange flowers); and E. blakeii (a large shrub with deep red flowers.

Yellow Silk Cotton (Cochlospermum Gossypium; Syn. C. Religiosum)

If I could have just one tree in my garden, I’d choose the yellow silk cotton. Even when not in bloom, it is beautiful, with its dark green palmate leaves; in bloom, it is breathtaking. From late September to early March, the leafless tree is covered with clusters of 3-inch golden yellow flowers with long stamens in the centre. At dawn, in my backyard, it is a golden pagoda against a dark background of fishtail palms.

Manure Plant (Gliricidia Sepium)

The only trouble with this tree is that though it is a wild forest tree, it is hard to get Gliricidia sepium. This fast-growing tree produces large trusses of pink-and-white flowers in February-March. Called “gobrada gida” (manure plant) in Kannada, it is valued as an organic fertilizer: its roots fix atmospheric nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient, and the leaves also contribute nitrogen when added to the soil. It grows in poor soil with minimal watering and is very easy to propagate from cuttings; even a branch used as a stake will root and grow. This small tree makes a good temporary filler for spaces where you may want to plant something more permanent later.

Potato Tree (Solanum Macranthum; Syn. S. Grandiflorum)

In Kannada our local name for this tree is “badne mara”—brinjal tree — and it does look like a large brinjal plant, with deeply lobed, dark green leaves. Its clusters of scented flowers, which appear all year round, open purple, turn lavender the second day, and white the third day. This is a fast-growing but short-lived (8-10 years) tree, so it’s ideal for spaces that you want filled quickly but where you plan to plant something more permanent later. Plants that like filtered light do well in the dappled shade of the potato tree. Stuck in its fork, my Cymbidium orchid sends out 18 to 20 streamers of flowers every March.

Annato (Bixa Orellana)

Bixa is a very satisfying tree to grow. Everything about it is pretty: its large, heart-shaped leaves with red veins and red petioles; its clusters of pink — sometimes white — tulip-like flowers; and most of all its bunches of dramatic, bright red, spiny fruits that look a little like litchis.

This tree has a range of traditional medicinal uses, reportedly for everything from stomach ache to snakebite (I haven’t tested it!). It is also economically useful. The yellow pulp around the seeds is used as a dye for textiles and as food colouring also. Apart from its usefulness, it is just highly ornamental!

Geiger Tree (Cordia Sebestena)

Scarlet Cordia, as it is also called, is commonly seen in parks in Hyderabad, though not so common in Bengaluru. It has large, rough leaves and clusters of orange tubular flowers borne on the tips of the branches throughout the warm season. It grows on a range of soils and is drought-tolerant, though it does better with regular watering. It is reputed to tolerate flooding and salt spray, as well.

Bottle Brush (Callistemon Citrinus; Syn. C. Lanceolatus)

A native of Australia, it is now commonly grown everywhere in India. A graceful, drooping tree with narrow, lancet-like leaves, it gets its name from its red inflorescences which look just like bottle brushes. The leaves when crushed give a lemon-like aroma; hence its Latin name citrinus.

The trees described here are just a sampler. Whatever your soil and water situation, you can find a jewel to make your garden glow. So go ahead and plant a tree.

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 4:22:28 AM |

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