Tree IDs #3: The Coast Coral Tree (Erythrina caffra)

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Blog entry by Gary Fixler posted 02-23-2009 04:26 PM 11615 reads 0 times favorited 2 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 2: collecting wood Part 3 of Tree IDs series Part 4: Silver Birch (Betula pendula) »

I thought I’d get the ball rolling on this Tree ID series with the one I’ve already mentioned in my call-for-interest post. I’ve identified this one, and a very small set of others, and will post those first, as I do not have photos yet of the trees in my area of any that I haven’t managed to track down.

The internet has several names for this one, including the coast coral Tree, the coastal coral, the kaffir tree, and the kaffirboom, or kafferboom tree. These last terms, according to one online encyclopedia (2nd to the last paragraph mentions our tree here), have quite an objectionable etymology. Personally, I prefer “coast coral.” According to this page, there are around 113 species of Erythrina – coral trees – in the world, “70 neotropical, 31 African, and 12 Asian species.”

Heavily pruned coast coral tree (Erythrina caffra) in office building parking lot

I moved from America’s east coast to Los Angeles 6 years ago for work, and as such, was pleased to discover that Erythrina – the entire 100+ species strong genus – are “the official tree” of this city. The Big Orange Landmarks blog has some great pictures of the historic 2-mile stretch of “San Vicente Boulevard between Bringham Avenue and 26th Street, Brentwood,” which feature a lot of more natural examples of E. caffra. It also shows me that I should be seeing some beautiful plumes of orange flowers, though I suspect the rampant pruning of all the corals in my area, which all show perhaps several hundred trimmed branch ends, as well as many lower limbs growing back around their cut ends, may prevent the flowers from appearing.

A comment on that Big Orange Landmarks page by someone whose commute often brought them past the San Vicente corals notes ” of the regular features of this was seeing huge fallen branches that had ripped away from the trunks under their own weight, sometimes large enough to extend into traffic and block a lane.” And that brings me to our most interesting point, this tree’s usefulness to the woodworker.

Heavily pruned coast coral tree (Erythrina caffra) in office building parking lot

Unfortunately, though seemingly large and tough, the coast coral is relegated to the position of ‘ornamental,’ as it is not very good for building. It grows fast and big, and as such, is not at all dense. Werner Voigt states on the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s plant information website’s page on the tree: “The wood is very soft, spongy and light. Hollowed trunks were used to make canoes and troughs, and cubes of wood were used as floats for fishnets.” His article is a goldmine of information about the tree’s needs, and habitat, and features pages of information on every aspect of it, with closeup pics of the trifoliate leaves and spiky bark – things I hadn’t noticed about the tree until they were pointed out to me by his write-up.

And of course, spongy or not, I’m considering a trip down San Vicente Blvd for some of those fallen limbs ;)

rain turns the normally ruddy-gray bark of the coast coral (Erythrina caffra) a deep mustard yellow

My photos come from a rainy February day – one of few months that bring rain to LA, along with November – and this revealed to me that the bark, normally a pale gray like dry cement, turns a deep, mustard yellow when wet. It makes me very curious to see how the spongy wood inside would take to various finishes, and I wonder, too, about what kind of [albeit, soft] natural-edge bowls might be had from these trees.

the rain-soaked trunk of a coast coral (Erythrina caffra) in an office building parking lot

If you’re still hungry for info, Wikipedia has a page on Erythrina, which goes into some detail on the features of the genus, and its other members. Too, there are a few more photos over in my Flickr set.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

2 comments so far

View Damian Penney's profile

Damian Penney

1142 posts in 5273 days

#1 posted 02-23-2009 04:42 PM

Cool, I see these all over San Francisco/Oakland, nice to put a name to a face as it were :)

-- I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it. - Pablo Picasso

View MsDebbieP's profile


18619 posts in 5442 days

#2 posted 02-24-2009 12:29 AM

that is one amazing tree!

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (, Young Living Wellness )

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