This Erythrina, Erythrina americana, is native to Mexico. The flowers are nicknamed “cuchillitos” (little knives) because children use them as fake knives to play with.
Erythrina, from Greek erythros which means red,refers to the flowers’ colour. Americana means in Latin 'from the American continent'.
Description and flowering period
This tree reaches 6 to 8 meters high. The compound-leaves are deciduous and composed of three leaflets borne on a long petiole (leafstalk). The tubular flowers are 10cm long each and are grouped in long clusters. They are glossy and a really bright shade of red that makes them extremely attractive to hummingbirds. This species flowers at the start of the year when the plant is still devoid of leaves. Once the leaves develop, the flowers turn into fruits which are seed-pods. The seeds are red shiny beans.
It requires a water-retentive soil, ideally a slightly sandy loam preferably in full sun. It is frost hardy to -7°C.
- Ornamental, mainly dwarf varieties.
- Food & drink: Flowers are edible once boiled and are often added to scrambled eggs in Mexico.
- Crafts: The wood is used to make picket fences and for arts, such as traditional ritual masks.
- Medicinal: All parts of the plant are toxic, they contain very potent alkaloids. Some are nevertheless used in small doses in folk medicine for their soporific and psychoactive properties (juice made from flowers and seeds) or as a purgative and contraceptive (bark), and to treat inflammations and bug bites (leaves ans stems). Consumption of the plant leads to euphoria, confusion followed by a comatose state and can ultimately induce death.
- Miscellaneous: The seeds have been used as a rat poison and the bark is used for poison-fishing.
In Mexico, flowers are nicknamed Cuchullitos (small knives) because children use them as fake knives to play. The tree is mentioned in ancient Maya and Aztec manuscripts. In Guatemala, it is known as the tree from which St Maximon appeared, right after the tree was struck by lightning (Guatemalan Saint born of a merging of Catholic and Mayan beliefs).
Translated by: François Saint-Hillier – MNHN