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What is a Coral Tree?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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The common name coral tree refers to about 100 different species of trees that belong to the genus Erythrina. Some other nicknames are flame tree and tiger's claw. These are tall, broad, leafy shade trees that bloom with brilliantly colored flowers. They grow in tropical climates all over the world. They are cultivated for a variety of purposes such as shade, natural fences and wind barriers. Parts of the coral tree are also used medicinally in certain cultures.

The native habitat of the coral tree includes eastern Africa, India, islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Southeast Asia, and southern China in warmer areas. It can be found growing in cultivation all over the parts of the world with tropical climates. It does not usually survive in areas where there is any frost. It prefers a climate with a dry winter and rainy summer, but it can tolerate a range of tropical humid climates. It prefers sandy soil and lower elevations with lots of sun, but will grow in a variety of conditions.

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Some species of coral tree can grow as tall as 80 feet (24 m), but a height ranging between 33 to 66 feet (10 to 20 m) is more typical, and they tend to spread out near the top. The bark is usually grayish and in many species the branches have black spines that resemble tiger claws. The leaves are usually large, green, and come in a variety of different shapes. The trees are deciduous and leaves fall off during the dry winter season. Flowering usually occurs in late winter or early spring before the leaves return and the flowers often grow in large, showy clusters with brilliant colors, the most common being bright red or reddish orange. The seeds most often grow in colorful long pods located just below the flowers and are often poisonous.

The coral tree is often planted for utility as well as for beauty. They are frequently used to construct living fences, or hedges, and wind barriers in populated areas. They are also used for a practice called intercropping where they are grown on plantations to provide shade for crops such as cocoa and coffee, or to provide trellis support for crops like vanilla and betel nuts. The leaves can be used for animal feed since they contain high amounts of protein.

There are several cultures that use parts of the coral tree for medicinal purposes. The bark is used as an ingredient in stomach remedies in Tonga, and in Samoa the bark is used to treat swelling while the leaves are used for eye problems. In China, Southeast Asia, and India the bark and leaves are used in a range of medicines such as a poultice from the leaves to ease joint pain, and a juice to destroy parasites like tapeworm. The bark is also used as an expectorant and in medicines for digestive issues.

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