The gold tree’s early blooms shine in many locations
It's January, and you've finally gotten used to the darker mornings and gray skies on the morning commute when a flash of gold strikes your eyes.
Today we begin a monthly column that will focus on the plants and animals of Hawaii, written by botanist Shirley Gerum.
It's the gold tree, and, if the sun is backlighting it, your eyes will keep returning to that brilliant splash of gold. As you draw closer, you'll notice another surprise: As the bright, trumpet-shaped petals fall to the ground, they form a gold circle on the lawn beneath the tree.
Although known in Hawaii as the gold tree, its common name in other countries, primavera ("first spring" or "early spring"), hints at the unique timing of its burst of blooms, timing that can vary.
In a 1965 edition of "Gardens of Hawaii," author Marie Neal notes blooming dates for a specific gold tree for four years: One year it was March 3; another year, March 24; a third year it wasn't until June; and a fourth year it was in January. Neal also recorded that the display of blooms seemed to last nearly two months.
Bright gold flowers replace the green fallen leaves, and when the last flowers fall to the ground, new leaves appear. The wood is yellowish-white and is used commercially for veneering and cabinet work, sold under the trade names of primavera and white mahogany.
COURTESY FOREST AND KIM STARR (USGS)
A gold tree grows in Kaunakakai, Molokai.
The tree's scientific name is Tabebuia donnell-smithii or Cybistax donnel-smithii.
You don't have to look far to find a gold tree. Many city and state parks are landscaped with an abundance of these trees. In the 2005 "A Tropical Garden Flora," botanists George Staples and Darrel Herbst point out the spectacular trees in the Hilo Forestry Arboretum, those seen around Wailuku and others planted beneath the elevated H-1 freeway near Honolulu Airport.
Dr. William Hillebrand, the first house physician/surgeon at Queen's Hospital, is credited with introducing the tree to Hawaii before 1871. It was adopted as a reforestation tree but soon became popular in landscaping.
If the trumpet-shaped flowers and the skirt of fallen petals beneath the tree remind you of other trees you've seen around Hawaii, there's good reason. Others in this plant family (Bignoniaceae) are the beautiful bluish-purple-flowered jacaranda tree, the pink tecoma tree, African "tulip" tree, calabash tree (la'amia), sausage tree and the orange trumpet vine, which bears arresting flame-colored flowers.
Labeled gold trees can be seen on the grounds of the Queen's Medical Center and many botanical gardens, including the Foster Botanical Garden (formerly the grounds of Hillebrand's home). The University of Hawaii Campus Plants Web site gives locations of the gold tree as just Ewa and makai of Henke Hall, but other forms of the tree can be found elsewhere around campus.
Should you begin imagining how great this tree might look in your yard, Staples and Herbst warn that this fast-growing tree quickly becomes too large for most home gardens. And worse, the mature, brittle branches break easily in high winds, so you might want to admire them from afar ... on your drive around the island.
teaches botany, ethnobotany and environmental science at Chaminade University. Her column runs on the last Monday of the month. E-mail her at email@example.com