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Red Birds thrive in Tucson’s alkaline soil with minimal care


Visitors and natives alike are always impressed by the profusion of blooms produced by the numerous types of Caesalpinia in the Tucson area. Better known as Red Birds and Mexican Birds to name a couple, it is impossible to go a block without seeing their beautiful blooms.

Though we get used to seeing them, visitors to the area seem to be quite in awe, and I’m not surprised. These plants may be one of our very best plants for Tucson landscapes.

Though some of the species are a bit frost sensitive, others are not and even the most sensitive pop back up after being knocked back by the worst winter weather.

Their best attributes include being very drought tolerant, having an extremely long and brilliant bloom period, they are totally happy in our alkaline soil and they get by on minimal care.

The best spot for these wonderful plants is in full, all day, bright, hot sun. They thrive on heat, truly coming on strong only after the temperatures have reached at least into the 90s and more.

Though some believe that they need to be pruned every year, it is actually optional. There are some gorgeous shrubs in medians that rarely get pruned and the result is very large plants with extremely exuberant growth that start blooming as much as two months before their severely pruned counterparts.

The reason one would want to prune back their Red Birds, would be to control size. If you need for the plant to remain no more than 4 feet high and wide, then yearly pruning will achieve that end.

The best known of these plants is probably Red Bird (Caesalpinia pulcherrima). Sometimes it is mistakenly called Mexican Bird, though this common name rightly belongs to Caesalpinia mexicana, which can grow larger, can handle more cold, is more reliably evergreen in cold weather and is suitable for training into a small tree rather than just a shrub.

The flowers of this bird of paradise are a bit smaller, but they are very bright golden yellow which shows up beautifully against the bright green leaves.

There is a gorgeous golden hybrid called the Phoenix Bird (Caesalpinia pulcherrima ‘Phoenix’) that has the exact same characteristics as the Red Bird but with golden flowers.

Another yellow species is the Desert Bird (Caesalpinia gillesii) that has soft yellow flower petals with long red stamens that look like floral eyelashes.

In addition to these species and hybrids there are also seedling crosses that show just how much genetic diversity can be made from two colors! In the tropics, these seedling plants are very common and give rise to many colors from peach and apricot shades to pinks and corals and even white.

No matter which variety you opt for, you can be sure that even with the smallest care, the “Bird” of your choice will bloom and bloom and bloom from the time the weather heats up until the first frosty nights insist that it rest for the winter.

Cathy Bishop, co-owner of Mesquite Valley Growers Nursery, has more than 30 years of gardening experience. E-mail her at weekendplus@tucsoncitizen.com.




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