Scarlet Splendour

Scarlet-chested Sunbird (Chalcomitra senegalensis) males in Sacred Coral-Tree (Erythrina lysistemon).

Spring in the South African Lowveld is rather different to that experienced in England and other temperate parts of the northern hemisphere.

There, it is a sort of gentle awakening of dew-drenched mornings, pretty flowering bulbs and budding branches, all to the backdrop of lively birdsong. Here, it is dry, dusty and tawny-grey, with almost every living thing holding out for the first rains of summer. But it is the time of flowering trees, many of them truly spectacular and none more so than the Sacred Coral-Tree.

Here in Nelspruit, the Sacred Coral-Tree grows on granite hillsides, but there are hundreds more planted along streets and in suburban gardens. They begin budding in the chill of mid-winter and are at their peak in August. Their branches are completely bare of leaves when the scarlet pyramids burst forth and light up the branches like a firework display. In the right setting, the impact of these trees in flower is simply breathtaking.

Sunbirds visit the trees in their droves, not to take breath, but to take nectar. They probe into the curved blossoms, sipping up the sweet stuff as fast as their slender tongues allow. Amethyst, White-bellied, Collared and Scarlet-chested are the most frequently observed sunbirds, with orioles, white-eyes, weavers and starlings equally unable to resist the nectar. Flycatchers, apalises and drongos come to snatch up insects around the flowers.

In early September, the coral-trees will begin to leaf up, the flowers will fade and fall; the show will be over for another year.

Nelspruit, South Africa, August 2012

Note: Erythrina is a genus of woody plants in the pea family (Fabaceae). There are about 130 species worldwide, ranging through the tropics and sub-tropics from Mexico and Argentina to India and Australia.  Many species play a role in human customs and traditional medicine: a truncheon of the Sacred Coral-Tree may be taken from a tree near the home of a person who has died and planted on his grave.

About Duncan Butchart

Duncan Butchart is interested in all aspects of the natural world, with a particular fascination for birds and their ecological relationships.
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5 Responses to Scarlet Splendour

  1. Duncan, you’ve nailed it on the head with that impression of spring – I do miss it. I think a follow-up on Weeping Boer-beans flowering in Maputaland would not be out of place!

  2. Peter Retief says:


    This story and painting are particularly interesting and show that your eyes are truly open to each day’s experience.


  3. Sam Parsons says:

    As per your instructions I have soaked my coral seeds, planted them in pots and I’m eagerly awaiting/hoping for a successfuly sprouting!

  4. Gran & Grandad says:

    Truly a lovely little bird, and one of my favourite trees!

  5. KAte BArnett says:

    Erythrinas are a favourite of mine. We have a large one in our garden in JHB that my parents planted 40 years ago as a truncheon taken from the Lowveld. In JHB they flower a month later.
    We were lucky enough to be in India when they were in flower a few years ago. Thanks.

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