Monday, June 18, 2007

Desert Workhorses

If you live in Arizona, you can't drive down a street, subdivision common area, or freeway without seeing dozens of these Red Birds of Paradise. Most every yard has a few, including mine, and after awhile, they are hardly noticed because they are so plentiful.

Right now, they are in all their glory, fully flowered and almost glowing in the sun. Many folks in Arizona refer to these shrubs as the Mexican Bird of Paradise, which is a misnomer. The Red Bird of Paradise is a Caesalpinia pulcherrima and the Mexican Bird of Paradise is a Caesalpinia mexicana, and it has yellow flowers. To make it even more confusing, there is a variety of Red Bird of Paradise that also has yellow flowers, called the Phoenix Bird of Paradise. And, add another, the Desert Bird of Paradise, Caesalpinia gilliesii, which has a different type of yellow flower. The other common name, not used much in Arizona, thank goodness, is Pride of Barbados. Adding another name to this befuddlement would be just too much!

The reason these shrubs are so abundant here is that they are perfect summer workhorses for our climate. They love the heat, the alkaline soil, survive easily in drought conditions, and flower for months. That's why they are chosen so often for public areas. However, this shrub can freeze back if it gets under 30 degrees, so it is best cut back in the winter. I have seven of these and we cut them back to 12 inches every November to keep them bushy and compact. If left to grow and the weather cooperates, the Red Bird of Paradise can be trained into a small tree, but I've never seen it done. We always seem to have several days of near freezing temperatures, making that type of growth impossible from year to year in the Phoenix area.

I think the Red Bird of Paradise looks best planted in groups of three or five rather than planted individually. The masses of flowers are even more dazzling when the shrubs are grouped together. As an added bonus, the Red Bird of Paradise is a hummingbird magnet.

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