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Master Naturalists: Search for wild Caesalpinia phyllanthoides

By Paul and Mary Meredith
Dec. 22, 2011 at 6:22 a.m.

Caesalpinia pulcherrima, commonly called Bird of Paradise, Pride of Barbados, or Poinciana is a plant introduced to Texas from its native range in the Caribbean.  Easy to grow, it provides a striking display of red and yellow flowers especially attractive to large swallowtail butterflies.  Less known and extremely rare is Caesalpinia phyllanthoides, commonly called Creeping Bird of Paradise or Dwarf Poinciana.  Its delicate yellow spring-flowers have only been seen in two Texas counties, Jim Wells and Live Oak.  This native's last reported sighting was in 1992, and it may be endangered.

Part of training as a Texas Master Naturalist or Texas Master Gardener stresses basic principles about educating others. In a nutshell, shared knowledge is based on facts - good, solid scientific evidence.

A new organization to Victoria

We're involved with another group starting a chapter in the Victoria area, Native Plant Society of Texas. It seeks to promote use, protection and conservation of plants native to the area. In the Native Plant Society in Louisiana, before we moved back to Texas, we adopted Native Plant Society approaches to landscape design here.

We're not opposed to the use of introduced or adapted plants, so long as they are not invasive, or escape and become invasive in the environment. In fact, we have experimented with several species of Caesalpinia, which are bushy perennials in the Fabaceae (pea) family.

You've probably seen, and may have planted, the most common one around Victoria, Caesalpinia pulcherrima, commonly called Pride of Barbados, or sometimes labeled Red Bird of Paradise. It's striking, up to 6- to 8-feet tall, with feathery leaves and beautiful 4- to 5-inch red-and-yellow blooms, which are butterfly magnets in the fall. And it's cold-hardy, coming back even after 18-degree weather, like last winter's.

Native to the Caribbean, it's not surprising that it is Barbados' national flower. There are other Caesalpinia as well, such as Caesalpinia gilliesi, a yellow form, which is just as tough as it is beautiful.

Unfortunately, the pink-and-white form of pulcherrima, which we grew for several years, is too tender to survive our coldest days. It does not come back.

New facts

When we talk with groups, we stress that Caesalpinia are well-adapted to the area, but they are not native and are a pea-family plant - making lots of seeds, which can go wild. We pull up lots of them, and that makes them a weed, if they're growing in the wrong place.

We've regularly reminded people that there are no Caesalpinia native to Texas.

Turns out that's not true

There is one native. We've found that Caesalpinia phyllanthoides is a native. It's rare, really rare, documented as growing only on limestone outcrops in Jim Wells County and in the Three Rivers area (Live Oak County), and Watch Listed by Texas Organization for Endangered Species. It's smaller than its Caribbean relatives, 2- to 5-feet tall, with yellow blossoms.

Is it still there?

From a conservation perspective, can this rare plant be collected and preserved? The only way to know for sure if wild phyllanthoides still exists is to look for it. The Corpus Christi Native Plant Society of Texas is planning a rescue trip to the last documented location this spring, and the new Victoria chapter is invited along.

If native plants interest you, you may wish to join the group and participate in the hunt. If you are, contact the local chapter organizer, Martha McAlister, at

You could be part of an expedition proving there are still Caesalpinia native to Texas.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at



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