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Plant of the Month: September 2008

Chilean Fire-tree
Embothrium coccineum J.R. & J.G. Forst.
= E. longifolium hort., non Poir.
= E. lanceolatum Ruiz & Pav.
PROTEACEÆ; Protea Family

Chilean Fire-tree is the most flamboyant species of flowering tree that can be grown in Seattle. It bears scarlet flowers of great brilliance in (April) May-June, attracting hummingbirds. No other tree here equals its stunning show of tropical color.
    Since I only plant in my garden fragrant or edible species, I never planted a Chilean Fire-tree here. But two are within a block of my residence because I planted them in my neighbor's yards.
    Chilean Fire-tree is either broadleaf evergreen, or semi-deciduous; a shrub or a tree up to 65 feet tall tall. It is usually narrow in form, at least while young. It can sucker, can reseed in gardens, and can be hurt in our occasional severe winters. It is uncommon, but worthy of more planting, so I hereby promote it.
    Another name is Chilean Fire-bush, or Flame Tree. (Another Fire tree or Flame tree is the cold-tender Nuytsia, of W Australia.) The Chilean (Mapuche) name is Notro. The generic name Embothrium is from Greek en, in, and bothrion, a small pit; --the anthers are borne in cup-shaped pits.
    As the common name suggests it is from Chile and Argentina. It was introduced to Western cultivation in 1846 by William Lobb to Veitch nursery of England. It was in North America by 1908. It is grown primarily on the Pacific Coast, and even here was almost unavailable before the 1940s.
    It is highly variable. I have seen specimens still in a one-gallon nursery pot blooming, while others in gardens waited over a dozen years to first bloom. Usually it grows very rapidly (one in San Jose, CA, grew 18 feet in 4 years). It resents coddling, and should not be fertilized, as it plays a pioneer role ecologically: fast growth, short lifespan.
    The leaves vary, but can measure as large as 7.5 inches long by 1 and a fifth inches wide. The flowers can be yellow or white in the wild, but in cultivation are usually screaming crimson-scarlet (the Latin epithet coccineum means scarlet). When not in bloom the tree is plain at best --often a narrow, crude eyesore. That is why I suggest it as a background plant, or a gift to a neighbor.

    Some record sizes (tree height in feet x trunk circumference in feet & inches):

65.5' x 4'4" Brodick Castle, Strathclyde, Scotland (1988; planted in 1962)
55' x 2'9" Kent, WA (2006) (56' in 2009)
51' x 2'9" Wauna, WA (1992)
52' x 4'3.25" Seattle, WA (2005; planted in 1955)
39' x 6'0" Mt. Usher, County Wicklow, Ireland (1989)

    Here are five named variations:

E. coccineum 'Eliot Hodgkin'
Sent in 1975 from Osorno, Chile, to England. Yellow flowers.

E. coccineum 'Inca Flame'
Introduced by Duncan & Davies nursery of New Zealand. In North American commerce by 1991-92. A treelike form of var. longifolium. Early blooming in spring. Very choice.

E. coccineum var. lanceolatum (Ruiz & Pav.) Ktze.
=E. lancifolium Ruiz & Pav.
Introduced to England in 1927 by Harold F. Comber. A hardier strain from the higher (about 5,000 feet elevation), drier Argentine side of the Andes, near the northern end of the species' range. Semideciduous as well as having very narrow leaves. Flowers scarlet. Favors well drained, sunny sites.

E. coccineum var. longifolium hort.
=E. longifolium hort., non Poir.
Origin obscure; introduced to British cultivation around 1900. Leaves long, usually evergreen. Flowers large and red. Growth robust. Less cold-hardy.

E. coccineum 'Norquinco Valley'
A cultivar of var. lanceolatum with especially abundant and vivid orange-scarlet flowers.

    A good local mail-order nursery source for seedlings is Colvos Creek Nursery (www.ColvosCreekNursery.com).

Back
Fire Tree photo

Fire Tree in full bloom; June 1990 (photo by ALJ)

big Fire Tree trunk photo

big Fire Tree trunk (with Jean Gauthier); October 2007 (photo by ALJ)




Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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