Caesalpinia pulcherrima

Accession Count: 51
Common Name: red bird of paradise
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Family Name: Fabaceae
Botanical Name: Caesalpinia pulcherrima
Sub Species:

Caesalpinia pulcherrima is a rounded upright, sometimes sprawling, multi-stemmed shrub. It often gets up to ten feet tall, displaying characteristic flowers with bright orange and yellow petals, and long red stamens. The flowers, which can grow up to two inches in diameter, bloom on terminal racemes at the end of branches, with as many as 40 flowers per raceme (1). The red bird of paradise's flowers eventually give way to thin, flat, brown, seed pods, about two to four inches long. These pods dry and split open, releasing the dark brown seeds, sometimes explosively (1,2). In mild climates, the plant is generally evergreen, with feathery, fern-like foliage composed of bi-pinnate dark green leaves with five to eight pairs of pinnae divided into six to ten pairs of leaflets per pinnae (1). It may, however, be winter deciduous in cooler locations, such as Tucson (1,2).

Compound: Cae pul
Geographic Origin: American Tropics
Ecozone Origin: Neotropic
Biome Origin:
Natural History:

Caesalpinia pulcherrima is a native of tropical regions of the Americas, and likely originated in the West Indies or Mexico (2,3,4). The first known reference of the plant by a European comes from Francisco Hernández, a Spanish botanist, in the early 16th century (5). The plant was admired by the European colonizers of the Americas, who called it flos pavonis, or "peacock plant", and by the late 17th century it was being grown as an ornamental plant in the major botanical gardens in Europe, including that of naturalist Carl Linnaeus in Uppsala (5). C. pulcherrima was originally named Poinciana pulcherrima in 1694 by the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, to commemorate a fellow Frenchman, General Philippe de Lonvilliers, chevalier of Poincy, who was governor of the island of Saint Christopher (5). Linnaeus kept this name, but it was later changed in 1791 by the Swedish taxonomist Olof Swartz to Caesalpinia (in honor of the 16th-century Italian botanist Andrea Cesalpino), because the genus Poinciana contained only this plant (5). Caesalpinia is now generally considered to be the official genus, though Poinciana is still frequently mentioned as the basionym of the plant (6). The epithet of the plant’s name, pulcherrima, was retained. Pulcherrima is the feminine superlative form of the Latin adjective pulcher, and means “the most beautiful”. Today C. pulcherrima remains a popular plant: it is cultivated in both hemispheres, and is commonly found throughout Sonoran desert landscapes (2,7). It is sometimes called "dwarf Poinciana" due to its similarity to the Royal Poinciana tree (Delonix regia), which some consider to be the most beautiful tree in the world (8). The continuing popularity of C. pulcherrima is due to its easy propagation, its adaptability, fast growth, and above all, its brilliant, long-lasting summer blooms. It can be used in a variety of ways, including as an ornamental accent plant or hedge. Its showy colors attract birds, hummingbirds, and butterflies (3).

Cultivation Notes:

C. pulcherrima is a fine choice for xeriscaping. It is easily propagated from seeds or cuttings in most well-drained soils (2,4). It grows best in full sun or light shade, but too much shade will cause it to become leggy and flower less (2). A fast grower, Caesalpinia pulcherrima will flower best with infrequent, deep waterings during flowering season (4). It takes pruning well and may be trained into a small accent tree in warmer locations (9). Beware, however, of the small, sharp thorns that run along the stems. Caesalpinia pulcherrima should be protected in the winter from frost, as it may suffer damage at 32° F and be killed at temperatures in the teens (2). Various cultivars are available with different colored flowers.


Caesalpinia pulcherrima has been used extensively by humans in a variety of ways. Indigenous tribes of South America used the juices of the plant to treat fever, heal sores and help with coughing, difficulty breathing and chest pain (10). Its ability to cause abortions was documented in the 17th century, but had been used by indigenous peoples probably long before that (5, 10). It has been used to treat sore throat, lung disease, and liver problems (5), and may have antiviral properties (10). Caesalpinia pulcherrima has been used to treat convulsions in children and to control intestinal worms (11). Its potency as an emmenagogue (a substance that induces menstruation in women) has also been observed(5, 12). Today, tea from the plant’s flowers, leaves and small stems is reputed to have value as a gastrointestinal tract medicine and is effective in alleviating conditions of bowel irritation such as gastritis or intestinal inflammation(12). Externally it can be used as a wash to soothe rashes, bites and stings and to give relief to poison ivy and chemical sensitivity rashes(12). Various extracts from the plant have been used as an eyewash, a mouthwash, an insecticide, to stun fish (11) and to execute criminals(5). Reportedly, green seed pods from the plant are cooked and eaten in Mexico(1). It has been used to make inks(5) and dyes(5, 11). It is sometimes called “Barbados fencepost,” a reference to its use as a thick, thorny hedge(1). Caesalpinia pulcherrima is the national flower of the country of Barbados, where it is called “the Pride of Barbados;” it appears on that country’s national coat of arms(5,13). 

Height: 6 - 10 feet
Width: 6 - 10 feet
Growth Rate: Fast Growing
Grow Season: Spring
Flower Season: Spring
Color: Red
Function: Accent
Spread: Non-spreading
Allergen: Non-allergenic
Invasive: Benign
Toxicity: Toxic
Hardy: Semi-hardy
Water Use: Moderate Water Use

  1. Missouri Botanical Garden
  2. University of Arizona Pima County Cooperative Extension
  3. Arizona Municipal Water Users Association
  4. ASU Virtual Library of Phoenix Landscape Plants
  5. Schiebinger, L. (2004). Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Harvard University Press.

  6. USDA Germplasm Info Network

  7. Tropicos

  8. Floridata

  9. University of Florida IFAS Extension

  10. Amazon Mystery

  11. Clay, H. (1977). The Hawai’i Garden: Tropical Shrubs. University Press of Hawaii. 

  12. Kane, C. (2011). Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest. Lincoln Town Press. 

  13. Pride of Barbados


Caesalpinia pulcherrima