On one of my first walks along the canyon slopes on the outskirts of Bisbee I repeatedly encountered odd clumps of bare twigs near rock outcroppings. They looked dead at first glance, but a fingernail scratch revealed green cambium. The untidy clumps also looked as if they had been sheared or broken off at a height of about three feet. The twigs or shoots didn’t have obvious buds. I filed the sightings away in my “Desert Oddities” mental drawer, and thought that a later season might make the plant’s identity apparent.
These puzzling encounters were in February. A few months later the dry desert spring began to gain momentum. In late May and early June the mystery solved itself when brilliant scarlet flowers emerged from the barren-looking twigs:
It was strange seeing these flowers unaccompanied by leaves, but the hummingbirds didn’t seem to mind that absence! Later leaves began to appear. The leaves looked much like those of cottonwood trees, and seemed unusually large and fleshy when compared to the small and leathery leaves of other desert plants and trees.
After our travels in Utah this fall another phase of the plant’s development awaited us upon our return to Bisbee. While I wasn’t looking the plants had set seed. The brilliant scarlet seeds were revealed when the absurdly bulbous pods burst:
The species Erythrina herbacea, commonly known as the Coral Bean, probably isn’t native here — historically it was found in the southeastern states and in northeastern Mexico, but it seems right at home around here, like the Osage Orange trees in the eastern states.
The seeds in the pods are separated by oddly hyperbolic lampshade-shaped papery structures. The seeds fall from the pods when lightly touched. I wonder what creatures can tolerate the poisonous alkaloids contained in the woody flesh of these seeds? The scarlet seed-coat seems like a warning. I certainly won’t try one!
One last shot of a side-lit seed peeking from a gracefully-arched pod: