coral frenzy
African Birdlife|March/April 2021
Coral trees (Erythrina species) are found in tropical and subtropical areas around the world, including in southern Africa where nine species occur.
GARETH COOMBS

Conspicuous and well-known, they are commonly seen in gardens and are planted along streets and driveways to provide shade and show off to best advantage their eye-catching displays of orange-red flowers. These are borne generally in winter or spring each year, covering the leafless grey-brown branches in a profusion of colour that draws the eye from a great distance and changes the palette of urban neighbourhoods.

It is not for our benefit, though, that this floral spectacle has evolved. It is intended to lure the trees’ principal pollinators – passerine birds – to visit the flowers and play their part in the plants’ procreative process. In return, the birds will be rewarded with copious quantities of nectar hidden deep among the petals.

Like various Aloe and Schotia (boerbean) species, coral trees belong to a group of valuable bird-pollinated plants that are predictable providers of nectar each year, predominantly in winter and spring. They, and others such as Strelitzia reginae, are pollinated mainly by a range of birds that feed on nectar opportunistically, as opposed to the highly specialised sunbirds and sugarbirds. Their flowers are ideally suited to attracting birds, being bright red or orange in colour, tubular in shape and odourless, and they produce generous quantities of dilute nectar. The genus Erythrina belongs to Fabaceae, the pea family, and its flowers can be recognised as such, with relatively thick, leathery petals arranged in a broadly open tubular shape instead of the typically curved and fused tube of many plants pollinated by sunbirds. They are presented in densely spiralled clusters at the ends of branches that provide a convenient perch for visiting birds. Not only are Erythrina flowers shaped differently from those pollinated by sunbirds, but they produce nectar differently too: in much higher volumes and with a lower concentration of sugars.

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