The coral bean is a deciduous, lanky, small tree with beautiful dark red blooms making it a striking garden accent. You can find it growing in the xeriscape area at the Master Gardener Victoria Educational Gardens at Victoria Regional Airport. You might know the coral bean as cardinal spear, Cherokee bean or Chilicote.

Native uses

With its roots once used by Native Americans to increase perspiration, some tribes boiled the leaves for a general health tonic tea. In parts of Mexico, the seeds have been used to poison rats and other pests.

Native legume grows into small, deciduous tree

It is a native legume of hardwood canopy forests and coastal prairies from South Carolina to the Rio Grande Valley. Coral bean shrubs are not cold hardy and will die back to its roots like a perennial but will return in the spring. In the Coastal Bend area, it grows into a small deciduous tree.

  • Size

Coral beans range from 6 to 25 feet tall and will spread 5 to 20 feet wide. In the relatively frost-free Victoria area, the coral bean will grow to 20 or 25 feet tall. In places where freezing weather kills it back, it rarely grows taller than eight feet tall.

  • May/June blooms like
    • hummingbird antenna

    May through June, brilliant red tubular flowers grow on tall stalks attracting hummingbirds and butterflies.

    Its glowing waxy, dark red flowers appear on spikes that can be 12 inches long. The Central Texas Gardener Newsletter described these spikes as “jutting out into the sky like a hummingbird antenna.”

    • Summer pods contain poisonous red seeds

    Coral bean flowers turn into long pods in summertime with bright red seeds inside that are poisonous if ingested. It is recommended that these harmful pods be removed when they appear, which also reduces seeds falling to the ground and sprouting where not wanted.

    Hummingbirds love the sweet nectar found in the flowers and are immune to the coral bean toxins.

    • Prefers well-draining soil types

    As a drought-tolerant native shrub, it does best in sandy or well-draining soil but adapts to clay and other types of soil. It is also salt-tolerant and a good choice for coastal landscapes. Coral beans do not like wet feet.

    • Grows in sun/shade; needs protection from afternoon sun

    If you have an isolated, arid area in your yard with poor soil, consider planting a coral bean. It flowers best in full sun or light shade. While the coral bean has a high tolerance for heat it does need some protection from hot afternoon sun.

    • No fertilizer required, but does stimulate early spring growth

    Once established, the coral bean does not need fertilizing or insecticide spraying, unless to be stimulated with fertilizer in early spring.

    • Thorns and heart-shaped leaves

    The foliage has its own juxtaposed beauty. Its trunk and branches have stout, curved thorns and glossy green, heart-shaped leaves.

    Each leaf contains three leaflets that are broad in the center with pointed tips. On the underside of each leaf are stickery prickles and the stems have short, curved spines.

    One interesting feature of the coral bean is that its leaves always turn towards the sun.

    Planting the coral bean

    Although the coral bean is easily propagated by seeds or cuttings, it is more efficient to start with a nursery-grown coral bean. Plant it in the fall or after the last frost in the spring. Follow this recommended planting procedure:

    • Select an area with full to partial sunlight.
    • Wearing gloves, work two to three inches of sand/vermiculite into soil for good drainage.
    • Dig a hole as deep as its root ball.
    • Place plant in prepared hole and water with a gallon of water when planted.
    • Apply a balanced (10-10-10) slow-release fertilizer.
    • Cover area around coral bean with two to three inches of mulch, helping it retain some water and insulate from cold.
    • Only fertilize coral bean trees or shrubs annually in early spring before new growth.
    • Once established, drought-tolerant coral beans rarely need supplemental watering.
    • The woody root of the coral bean is massive and difficult to transplant after it has been established. Be sure to plant it where you want it to stay.

    Drawbacks

    What’s not to like about this beautiful large shrub? Three drawbacks are known:

    1. Leaves and stems have sharp, curved spines and thorns on its stem.
    2. Dark pods have brilliant red seeds that are poisonous.
    3. Its many seeds can cause it to quickly spread over an area making it an invasive nuisance for some landowners.

    Natural choice for area landscapes

    Nevertheless, the coral bean is a tough, native plant that can thrive with minimal care. The coral bean is an excellent choice for natural landscapes.

The Gardeners’ Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension – Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.

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